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Camp Free in Europe

We devoted all of last summer to trekking in the Pyrenees. As soon as possible, we’ll offer useful info gleaned from four months—more than 1,000 miles (1600 kilometers)—of exploring the mountainous, French-Spanish frontier.

But first, we’ll answer the question that a few people have asked us recently: “How can you afford so much time in Europe?”

The answer: By doing it on the cheap, which means camping frequently and, as often as possible, camping free.

We’ve been camping free all our lives––primarily in western North America, but also throughout New Zealand, Italy, France, and Spain. By “camping free” we mean pitching a tent and spending the night in a place where (a) it costs us nothing, (b) we’ll be physically comfortable (flat ground, minimal noise from cars or people), (c) we’ll be emotionally comfortable (a degree of privacy, little or no chance of someone threatening us), and (d) others are unlikely to notice us, and, if they do, are unlikely to object.

Our goal when camping free, however, is not only to save money. For us, camping free is almost always more enjoyable than staying in a campground, because (a) we’re alone in a natural, tranquil, beautiful setting, (b) we’re often within earshot of a stream, and (c) we sometimes have an impressive view, and (d) we drive less, because we sleep closer to trailheads. Campgrounds can’t compete.

Bear in mind, we’re always stalking mountains. We occasionally visit cities, but most of our travel is in or near mountains, where the terrain is more pleated and forested, and where there’s a bit of space between villages or towns. In urban settings, pitching a tent anywhere but in a campground isn’t just free camping. It’s stealth camping. We’ve stealth camped near and sometimes in cities—Nice, France, and Auckland spring to mind—but it’s a bit desperate, requires skill and nerve, and is not a practice we recommend.

Even in rural settings, however, free camping is rarely easy. Compared to defaulting to the nearest campground, free-camping is an endeavor. Experience helps, of course, enabling you to locate potential campsites faster. But searching out a site can be time consuming, regardless of your free-camping proficiency. It can demand patience and effort, usually when you’re already tired. And free-camping always entails a measure of deprivation: no running water, no toilet. Plus, it’s rarely possible to leave your tent unattended all day at a free campsite while you go hiking. Pitch it late and pack it early is the norm.

The easiest, most abundant, officially-sanctioned free-camping we know of is in British Columbia, Canada. That’s why we wrote a book about it: Camp Free in B.C. It provides descriptions of, and directions to, hundreds of campgrounds where you’ll pay nothing to pitch your tent, or park your RV. (Go to www.hikingcamping.com/camp-free-bc.php to learn more about the book.)

But the easiest place we know of to unofficially camp free is Europe, particularly France and Spain. Why is this, compared to the U.S. and Canada? Because outside densely populated areas, France and Spain enforce fewer land-use restrictions. In the mountains of both countries, we almost never see police officers or rangers. Most French and Spanish tend to be less concerned, defensive or protective about private property. Unlike in North America, rural land in France and Spain is not festooned with “Keep Out,” “No Trespassing,” and “Private Property” signs. The French and Spanish tend to be relaxed, easy going, and inclusive. They have a “we’re all in this together” social conscience. Their attitude tends to be “live and let live.” In France, “laissez faire” is a way of life. The Spanish are so empathic, that “muy simpatico” aptly describes the vast majority.

Still, we’ve tried not to lean heavily on those cultural attributes. Exploiting them, testing their limits, would be uncomfortable for us, because it would be rude and unappreciative. The generous nature of the French and Spanish have simply allowed us to often feel at ease doing what we’ve always believed should be possible and acceptable on unfenced, unsigned, unused, uncultivated rural land almost anywhere: to quietly, sensitively, unobtrusively nab a night’s sleep in tent.*

If what we’ve described sounds appealing and possible to you, we suggest you try it. Free-camping can greatly enhance your European hiking venture while saving you money and enabling you to stay abroad longer. So here are a few suggestions to ease you into it:

(1) Driving between trailheads, be on the lookout for minor roads—lightly traveled, tertiary lanes (perhaps unpaved) that might lead to a potential, free campsite. If you see one that looks promising, you can return after your hike and check it out. Small tracks beside streams and rivers are good bets.

(2) Study the maps. Not just road maps, but hiking maps. They show a smaller area in greater detail, indicating the kinds of roads you’re looking for. They also allow you to assess the surroundings before you actually invest time searching. The  IGN 1:25 000 topo maps for France are excellent.

(3) Follow your instincts. You think there might be a secluded spot on the other side of that hill? Go take a look. And don’t just look. Listen intently. When assessing a potential, free campsite, what you hear (passing vehicles, barking dogs, distant voices) or don’t hear is as important as what you see or don’t see. And trust your gut. You’ve found a suitable site, but something about it or the area doesn’t feel quite right, or makes you uneasy? Keep looking elsewhere. That unease will only grow and prevent you from having a comfortable, enjoyable night.

(4) Be tenacious but not insistent. Know when to give up. Sometimes you just won’t find a place to camp free. Don’t pursue your search late into the night. You’ll exhaust yourself. You and your partner will likely end up arguing. Well before that happens, head to the nearest campground. They’re much more plentiful in Europe than they are in North America. And nearly all have excellent facilities. Besides, after a few nights free-camping, you’ll probably want to stay at a campground, where you can shower, wash your clothes, and get wifi access.

(5) After you’ve found your home for the night, and you’re settling in, if someone happens by, don’t panic. Don’t act nervous. Don’t even be concerned. Just smile and nod confidently. Chances are, they too will be unconcerned about you, and they’ll just carry on. If, however, it’s evident they think you’re trespassing, approach them and, after a friendly greeting, ask (in their language) if it’s okay if you camp there for just one night. Be prepared to abide by their answer. If they say “no,” ask if they can suggest an alternative location, then leave promptly. If they say “yes,” you’ll feel even more relaxed having been granted permission by a local.

(6) Always abide by the three, self-imposed rules of free-camping: harm nothing, take nothing, leave nothing. All travelers should think of themselves as ambassadors and conduct themselves accordingly. When you look back on your travels, you want to see a wake of goodwill behind you.

(7) It’s sometimes helpful to stop, cook dinner, and complete your post-meal clean-up, before searching for a free campsite. That way you’ll end up pitching your tent later in the evening, and you’ll be more discrete (creating less visible and audible commotion) at your campsite. Ideally, you want to pitch your tent near sunset, so it’s visible for as little time as possible.

(8) In the morning, collapse and pack your tent shortly after you rise, ideally no later than 8 a.m. Then, when you prepare breakfast, you can relax, knowing there’s no visible evidence that you slept there. A passerby might surmise you’re a free-camper, but all they can see is that you stopped for a morning picnic, so they’ll have no reason to protest, and you can take your time before departing.

(9) No matter how secluded and out-of-sight your tent is, don’t leave it up unattended at a free campsite while you go hiking for the day. It will almost certainly be noticed by someone, which means there’s a chance it won’t be there when you return. The daily, pitch-and-repack routine is a free-camping requirement, even if you intend to return to the same site for a second night.

(10) In France and Spain, free-camping with a small, rental car and a tent works great. We enjoyed it throughout the summer of 2014. But free-camping with a self-contained campervan is better. Yes, it’s also more expensive, but perhaps not as much more as you might imagine once you factor in the many advantages. Read our December, 2012 blogpost titled “How Hikers Should Do Europe.” We wrote it after six months of traveling in a campervan: http://www.hikingcamping.com/blog/2012/12/advice-from-35000-miles-on-the-trail/

*In Norway, Sweden and Scotland, the “freedom to roam” or “everyman’s right” refers to public access to private and public land for the purpose of recreation or exercise. This liberty is also known as the “right of public access to the wilderness” or “the right to roam.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_to_roam for further explanation.

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Hiking and camping in the wilderness can be dangerous. Experience and preparation reduce risk but will never eliminate it.

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