The Unwritten Rules of Wild Camping / by ellie berry

I’ve been thinking about the topic of wild camping, and wild spaces in Ireland for a while, trying to decide what the best way to approach a discussion about it is, and share our experiences. 

People have asked us about our camping - do you camp, where do you camp, why don’t you show your campsites in videos more, etc. Wild camping is one of my favourite things about this trip, and it’s also one of the things that causes me the most anxiety. In Ireland there are no snakes, no bears - in fact pretty much no wild animals or plants that are going to harm you. The thing that scares me the most when camping are other people. No matter how many jokes Irish people make about “living in the middle of nowhere”, the Irish countryside isn’t all that remote most of the time. Which makes it tricky for me to feel comfortable throwing up the tent on a pretty lake shore and sitting in the evening sun. (side note: people who do this, and take those beautiful photos, are you not being eaten alive by midges and/or mosquitoes?! How can you live with the itching?!) In the 9 months we’ve spent camping over the last year, we’ve had a handful of uncomfortable experiences, but the vast majority of our camping experiences have been enjoyable, uneventful nights. 

Roaming the Land: Public and Private Rights of Way

In Ireland, there's roughly four major walking route schemes:

  • The National Waymarked Trails, Sport Ireland
  • National Looped Walks, Sport Ireland
  • The SlĂ­ na Sláinte, the Irish Heart Foundation
  • Coillte recreational forests

Our project is to walk all of The National Waymarked Trails (NWTs). If you follow this project you probably know (or could hopefully infer) that the Waymarked Trails are walks that have been developed with the agreement and support of landowners, whose lands are crossed by the trails. These sections where the trails cross private land are not necessarily rights-of-way. Unlike the UK (especially Scotland), Ireland does not have the "Right to Roam" - meaning that private property is not strictly open for walkers to ramble across without the landowners permission. In Irish law, there are defined distinctions between Public and Private Rights of Way. A public right of way is a person's right of passage along a road or path, even if the road or path is not in public ownership. There are very few registered public rights of way that are not maintained public roads. A private right of way is the right to enter onto private lands, but only for the purposes of gaining access to or exiting from another piece of land (it's typically an arrangement between neighbours).
The waymarked trails are permissive routes that have been developed with the landowners’ agreement, and are not rights of way. Even access to Coillte lands is permissive and you do not have a right of access. (More details from Citizen's Information)

With such restrictions set on Irish land, it can often feel like wild camping here is impossible. There's a great article written by David Flanagan that I often go back to, where he looked into finding Ireland's most remote location. His results; a patch of boggy hillside in the Nephin Beg Range in Mayo, just under 8km from the nearest road. 
When written down on paper this can sound pretty disappointing. Where is the "Irish Wilderness"? In general, we've found that if you're an hours walk from road, you can pretty much count this as remote. And having walked through more march and bog land than I ever thought possible, there is also the factor that many of these untouched areas have remained wild only because they are seen as having little value. 

Wild camping: the important bits

 What I'm hoping to create is a helpful guide to other adventurers and ramblers, who have been wandering in the same grey areas as me around hiking and wild camping. Wild camping is a wonderful experience when experienced properly. And it is clearly a promoted activity, with magazines such as Outsider Magazine listing 15 of the best wild camping spots in the countryRed Bull, and even the Irish Times all discussing and listing possible places to escape to. But as most land is privately owned, certain steps need to be taken to insure that both land owners and campers can appreciate the wonders of wild camping. 
(Side note: The Irish Times article has some questionable camping recommendatons (such as #16 The 5 star Westin Hotel in Dublin) but if you press on, around #21 they provide some really useful information!)    

Leave no Trace

The most important piece I would want people to take away from this piece is the Leave No Trace ethics guide. Leave No Trace Ireland is a branch of a world wide organisation aimed at both protecting our wild spaces and providing information on how best to experience the outdoors. Leave No Trace introduce themselves as an outdoor ethics programme designed to promote and inspire responsible outdoor recreation through education, research and partnerships
And their ethos is basically what it says on the tin: Leave No Trace.
Their seven principles are:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Be Considerate of Others
  3. Respect Farm Animals and Wildlife
  4. Travel and Camp on Durable Ground
  5. Leave What You Find
  6. Dispose of Waste Properly - "if you bring it in, take it out"
  7. Minimise the Effects of Fire

Personally, I don't like to light camp fires. Depending on the trip I have a small gas stove I often take with me, but I don't build fire pits and light traditional camp fires. Apart from the harm it causes to the landscape, I also just don't want to worry people. If I'm far out on some moorish hill, sheltered and secluded from people, the smoke off a fire is a very visible thing, and understandably worries land owners who don't know who or what has started the flames. For some people it's a big part of the experience, and I completely understand why, so I'm not going to say much - but here is some more information on how to make sure you're building the right kinds of fire, and removing as much of the trace as possible

Asking permission

From our experience on the trails, wild camping in Ireland doesn't have as long a history, or as active a user base as other countries, and I think this is part of why it feels like such a grey area. However, for this whole project, we've never met a land owner who turned us away if we asked to camp on their land. There have been confused expressions, maybe a lingering pause, but we've always been pointed towards a field, or given just a general hand wave at the hundred acres stretching out beside the property. I think the key thing is to be friendly and clear. We've had people invite us in for a cuppa after chatting for 10 minutes on the side of the road about the local landscape and wildlife. Most people here fit the "stereotype" of friendly and welcoming, it's just a case of finding those people. 

When there's no-one to ask

Of course, if you're out and really trying to "get away from it all", there isn't always going to be someone to ask. Some people say that if there's no house or people in view, then it's simply a case of living by the Leave No Trace rules. Coillte is Ireland's major semi-state forestry company, with the land they manage covering 7% of the entire island. This means that nearly every forest a trail goes through is run by Coillte. They have have two official camp sites on their land, at Lough Key Forest Park in Co. Roscommon, and at Curragh Chase Forest Park in Co. Limerick. I also come across this PDF list of five allocated wild camping spots. What was even more exciting was to see that they're all along NWTs; 2 on the Slieve Bloom Way; 1 on the Kerry Way; 1 on the Avondhu Way; and 1 on the Western Way. Coillte's camping page also mentions overnight shelters along some of the NWTs, something I've been hearing more and more about, but haven't yet experienced myself.

Outside of this, Coillte don't encourage camping on their land. And here comes the problem with putting such things into words. We have camped on Coillte land, and in general if you read other discussions online, it's a very typical thing to do. It tends to be late at night when we pitch up our tent, and its early morning when we take it down and move on. We never stay long, and we strictly follow Leave No Trace. 

Easy Wild Camping Spots

Waterways Ireland develops and promotes over 1000km of inland navigable waterways - primarily for recreational purposes. The main waterways they are responsible for are; the Barrow Navigation; the Erne System; the Grand Canal; the Lower Bann; the Royal Canal; the Shannon-Erne Waterway; and the Shannon Navigation. Currently, I can't find a statement online where Waterways Ireland specifically state that camping along the banks and locks they maintain is allowed. Having walked the 3 NWTs that are maintained by Waterways Ireland (Royal Canal Way, Grand Canal Way, and Barrow Way), I can say that from our experience camping is allowed. We had great conversations with Waterways Ireland staff that we met along the routes about camping and travelling the canals. Along the river Barrow, canoeing companies also supply camping gear to people who want to go on multi day adventures along the waterway. Typically we'd aim for a lock that was not serviced by road, and would therefore be quiet in the evenings. We met many farmers, dog walkers, and cyclists while pitching our tent, with most offering smiles and jokes that we should also be carrying fishing rods. If you're looking to build confidence and experience camping, or just feel like a very relaxing night out, the Barrow Way would be a strong recommendation from us! 
(And who knows, Carl's been saying for the past year that he wants to kayak all the waterways ... maybe we'll see you there!) 

Ask a local! No one else is going to know about that small clearing beside the stream, 100 metres off the trail, at the point you would never have guessed. Linking into what I said earlier about camping and distance walking being not as commonly and openly practiced here as in other countries, there aren't many guidebooks or services to let you know about some of the best things to see and do (and where stay) in the small places you pass through. But if you get talking to a local, who knows what you'll learn.
When you do come across an official campsite, the owners can also be pretty knowledgeable in places further along the trail, as they know that official campsites are few and far between.  

National Parks

The rules for wild camping in Ireland's national parks vary. In Ballycroy National Park Co Mayo, you can pitch your tent without a permit, as long as you're in a group of less than 10, and are not lighting any campfires. Any more than 10 (or if you wish to roast some marshmallows) you need to apply for a permit well in advance. The same applies in Connemara National Park, and the rules are similar in Wicklow National Park - but no fires are allowed in Wicklow and camping is forbidden in Glendalough. You need to walk well out of the valley before you'll be able to find somewhere within the park’s wild-camping rules. As far as I can tell, camping isn't currently allowed in Killarney, Burren and Glenveagh national parks.

Camping Shelters - Mountain Meitheal

Adirondack shelters originate in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state. They are a popular feature in US wilderness areas and in Nordic countries where they are used as temporary accommodation during hiking and fishing trips. The shelters are small structures with three sides, a pitched roof and a raised platform which can typically sleep four or five people. Some have varying amenities such as picnic tables or water butts. These shelters are starting to appear on some of the remote long distance trails here in Ireland, thanks to the volunteer group Mountain Meitheal.
Having not yet stayed at one of the Brushers Adirondack Shelters, what I'm sharing here is just the research I've been doing for our future trails. And first things first, the guys at Mountain Meitheal sound pretty cool! 

Mountain Meitheal: We aim to counteract the pressures which are evident on our fragile landscape by building and maintaining trails which are sympathetic to the surrounding countryside. We promote sustainable recreation by encouraging personal responsibility and awareness.
“Meitheal” is the Irish word for a workgroup usually made up of volunteers who come together to work on a project for the common good or to benefit the community.

Looking at their website and the work these volunteers do, I can't believe I've never come across them before! Maybe when we're finished walking around the country we can help maintain some of the amazing trails we've had the pleasure of walking along. 
So far, it looks like there are five of these shelters; 3 on the Wicklow Way, and 2 on the Western Way.

Western Way: 

  1. Lough Avoher Shelter
    On the Bangor Trail. Under Nephin Beg, the shelter sleeps five, has a picnic table and water butt. Fires are forbidden in this ecologically sensitive area. Reaching the hut: two-hour hike from Letterkeen.
  2. Altna Brocky Shelter
    About a five-hour hike from Lough Avoher. No fire pit or water butt, but there's a stream nearby - and an outdoor compost toilet! The hut is on flat ground, so there's some room for tents too.

Wicklow Way:

  1. Brusher's Gap
    Just north of Glendalough, it’s about a 90-minute hike out. It has a fire pit, a water butt (water may need to be treated) and a picnic table. 
  2. Mucklagh 
  3. Mullacor 

And I think I'll leave it at that for now! For me this topic is wide and deep, and there are many more paths and discussions I could develop when reading and researching - and just digesting my own experiences. My writing is drawn on personal experience and days of researching through blogs, governments sites, discussion boards ... wherever there was talk of the trails. Hopefully I'll come back to some of these topics soon, with more ideas and findings. 
If you've any other information, opinions, or ideas about camping in Ireland (or abroad) please let me know!