Last year I spent three weeks roaming around Spain and Portugal in a campervan. The biggest joy for me throughout the trip was the thought that, wherever I journeyed, home was with me. Even the most hardened long-term traveller will have to admit that at some point during extended periods ‘on the road’ you can’t help but miss your home comforts and yearn for just one evening snuggled up in your bed at home.
Being on the road can get tiring, especially if you are camping. The constant movement, setting up and taking down of your tent, unpacking and repacking belongings can all start to wear you out the longer you keep going.
So picture my excitement, like a child at Christmas who realises the biggest present under the tree is for them, when I first opened the door to the campervan and took a look at the interior. It was all there. There was a sink and tap, gas hobs, fridge, shelves, USB points, interior lights and a large cushioned seat that folded out flat into a double bed.
I may sound slightly stupid at this next remark, but what I hadn’t appreciated was that to go on a campervan trip was like going away in a mini home on wheels. It had everything you needed for a road trip (thanks to my friend, the van’s owner, an enthusiastic campervaner): from a tiny grater for the chocolate for your hot chocolate to the bottle opener.
I have never spent any time in a campervan or a caravan. My childhood holidays were spent in canvas tents in French campsites filled with pine needles and mosquitos, the luxuries of such styles of accommodation remained hidden behind a white wall of mystery.
I loved the fact that wherever we went on the road trip our home came with us and this is was what made the trip most special for me. If we wanted to stop, all it took was to open the side door and shake out the deck chairs and we were ready to relax. Now, don’t worry, I’m not totally trashing camping, but let’s just say my eyes have been opened to a new way of travelling.
So, buoyed up by the freedom of the van my friend and I were keen to give wild camping in Spain and Portugal a go.
What Is Wild Camping?
Wild – or free – camping is when you decide to spend the night in places that are not registered campsites. This is easily achievable if you are in a campervan or motorhome simply because you have the ability to drive up somewhere inconspicuous and stay the night, plus given the nature of the campervan, you are more contained rather than having to pitch and sleep in a tent.
How Easy Was It?
I was surprised. Finding the perfect spot to wild camp in our van was actually more difficult than I expected. It’s not as if you really want to pull up at the side of a road and try to sleep. No privacy, noisy and it just feels a bit… conspicuously awkward.
So, we invested a lot of time out of our afternoon scouring the map and deciding on the area that we would try to look for a place to sleep. Usually, we’d head to forested areas or by a lake or a river that were more likely to have areas to pull up and seek shelter.
But it did take time. And more often than not, we’d still be searching for an ideal location as the sun was setting and darkness was taking over the sky. Not perfect, but given that we were in Europe in November, we had fewer daylight hours at our disposal.
Know The Laws
Private property or places that are clearly sign posted stating that camping is illegal should be respected. After all, a farmer isn’t likely to enjoy you pitching up on their land any more than you would like a bunch of campers rocking up to your back garden.
A lot of places will have a signpost up somewhere explaining whether you are allowed to camp or not. Most will stipulate that you should be self-contained – i.e. have toilet facilities in your van. You don’t need to be a genius to work out why.
Where and When
I was exploring the back roads of Spain and Portugal in November, which I suppose is technically off-season as it is Autumn. Still, I’m from England and I left the rain behind for a month and emerged into the shining blue skies of Southern Spain and Portugal.
The cooler temperatures at night and shorter days meant I spent less time sitting in my deckchair in the evening enjoying a glass of wine than I perhaps might have in the summer. However, day time temperatures were more pleasant for sightseeing, crowds were minimal and the chances of running into other wild campers in the areas we sought a camp spot were even lower.
If you choose to venture around Europe in the summer, expect Police and local land owners to be more vigilant and challenge you, especially around the more touristy areas.
Do Your Prep and Have Resources
Being organised with our supplies in advance made a big difference between whether we went hungry that night or whether we feasted. In Spain we were off the beaten track in a big way and in these rural areas there were not local convenience stores on every corner. We had to ensure we bought enough food to last us and that we’d remembered to take into account the Spanish siestas that stretched into the afternoon and meant that the shops would be closed.
Know What Is Open
Research the local area to find out whether there are campsites or sports centres nearby that you could pay to use their facilities. Unless you’re by the beach it’s unlikely that public toilets would have shower facilities, and even if they did it would most likely be freezing cold water.
We were travelling in November, whilst perfect for cooler temperatures and fewer crowds, meant that we came across closed campsites and other seasonal facilities, especially in the south of France near the border with Spain.
It’s crucial to clean up after yourself. Have bags for all of your rubbish and take it all with you. Have a portable toilet in your van. Pack a fire pit or a BBQ that you can dismantle and take with you in the morning instead of setting one up on the ground and burning the floor. Bring your own wood rather than pilfering the branches from nearby trees.
Leave Only Footprints, Take Only Photos
Following on from the above, respect the land around you and remember to not leave any trace that you were there. Can you imagine how you would feel if you pulled up somewhere and it was littered with rubbish – or worse. Yeah, don’t be that jerk.
I love the sentiment of leaving only footprints behind you, as you can enjoy the pristine beauty of a particular location as much as the people before and after you.
How Did I Feel About Wild Camping?
If I’m totally honest, not knowing where – and whether I’d even find somewhere suitable at all – I was going to put your head down that night did leave me feeling somewhat anxious.
And those who know what I’m like know that I tend to be pretty relaxed with my travel plans at the best of times.
Sometimes it was looking like we were never going to find a suitable place. The sun was setting, we were miles from a campsite and the landscape around us was not appropriate to tuck ourselves away in for the night. I was almost in a place where I was resenting the time spent driving around to search for a camp spot. And this was going against my grain, so to speak, as I’m a firm believer in the enjoying the journey. So there were times when I wrestled with trying to sit back, relax and let it all happen.
We kept going and sooner or later it almost always worked out. One of my favourite travel stories was born out of a wild camping moment in a less than salubrious location where we were approached by a friendly stranger with an arm load of oranges, proof that kindness can touch you anywhere and brighten your day.
At the end of the trip, I was a total wild camping convert, interspersed with the odd hot shower at a campsite of course! I loved the total isolation, as strange as that may sound, and the feeling that I was tucked away from the rest of the world in my own personal tranquillity.
Some Useful Links
All The Aires is a useful website that lists all of the spots you can pull over legally in France, Spain, Portugal, Luxemburg, Belgium and the Netherlands for a night in your campervan. Whilst not technically wild camping, this information is invaluable when you haven’t managed to score that perfect spot and are just tired, hungry and looking for a place to stop. I wish I had discovered this before driving through France!
The Rough Guide has published a helpful article about how to find a good wild camping spot.
And Pitchup.com has a list of a few ideas about where to free camp in the UK.
If you liked this you may enjoy reading about my Top 5 Journeys and the different types of transport these involved, plus my experiences in camping in the Yorkshire Dales in England versus Karijini National Park in Western Australia.
Does the thought of wild camping tick your box or am I the only one up for the adventure?
Have you ever tried wild camping? How did you find it? Do you have any funny, scary or weird stories to tell? Share your experiences with me!
Love it? Pin it!