Saturday, 1 August 2020

What's in name? Wild camping, backpacking, backcountry camping, bivouacking ......

Walk into the wilds with your camping gear on your back, pitch your tent, sleep, pack your tent, move on. What are you doing? Backpacking, wild camping, or something else? The name shouldn’t really matter, it’s the activity that counts. The name is just a convenient label, shorthand to describe what you do quickly so others understand. The name becomes a symbol of identity too. It joins you to a tribe. With others using this name you can make assumptions, share experiences, use words that may mean nothing to those outside the group. 

In the last few decades wild camping has become a common description to describe those of us who camp in the hills, in wild places, having carried everything in on our backs. Much more recently wild camping has been used by the mass media to describe roadside camping outwith campsites, sometime not even in tents but in campervans. In particular it’s used to describe those who leave litter including discarded tents and other gear, light fires, hack branches off trees and generally cause mess and damage.

Unsurprisingly there have been strong objections to this recent use of wild camping. People don’t want their style of wild camping with its philosophy of leave no trace sullied by association with campers who leave a mess. People are concerned too that if wild camping gets a bad reputation in general then there may be restrictions placed upon it that will affect everyone. 

To address these concerns there have been suggestions for a name change for wild camping or a new name for those causing problems. For wild camping ‘bivouacking’, ‘lightweight camping’ and ‘leave no trace camping’ have been suggested. I don’t think these will catch on. In the UK the first usually means sleeping out without a tent (in some countries it does include using a tent, as long as it’s not tall enough to stand up in). The other two are not, I think, specific enough. Wild camping is, I suspect, here to stay. The mass media is slow to change. As to changing the name for the campers who leave a mess all the ones I’ve seen are pejorative – ‘dirty campers’ and similar. I don’t think this would be helpful. There are likely to be many of these campers who simply don’t know what they should be doing. Education and help can achieve changes in behaviour. Insults are unlikely to do this.

For myself, I’d be quite happy to go back to backpacking to describe the activity. When I started out in the early 1970s there wasn’t a word in the UK for it. I went fellwalking and camping. Then the word backpacking was imported from the USA, where it was used to distinguish those who carried all their gear on their backs from those who used pack animals. The first books I bought on the subject all had backpacking or backpacker in the title. The Backpacker’s Club was formed and there were backpacking columns in camping magazines (there were no walking magazines). I had a name and a tribe. That continued through the 1980s and early 90s. My first three books all had backpacking or backpacker in their titles.

Then the mass media began to use the word to mean “a form of low-cost, independent travel, often staying in inexpensive lodgings and carrying all necessary possessions in a backpack” (Wikipedia definition) and I had to get used to being misunderstood when I used the word outside outdoor circles, except in the USA where it still meant the same. Around the same time ‘wild camping’ came into being, to describe what backpacking used to mean. And now ‘wild camping’ is changing meaning too. Damned awkward thing language. It just won’t stay still. 

Backpacking in its original meaning has been subdivided by proponents into traditional, lightweight, and ultralight backpacking. All these refer to the weight of equipment carried. The activity remains the same. I wrote about these labels here. Then there is thru-hiking, which means backpacking a multi-day route, usually a trail, to distinguish it from weekend backpacking. It’s also a relatively new description and didn’t exist when I began hiking long-distances. I was a thru-hiker before the term existed!

Possible alternatives to wild camping could be borrowed from North America just as backpacking was. Frontcountry camping and backcountry camping make sense. Backcountry has been taken up by ski tourers here to distinguish themselves from resort skiers. Perhaps wild camping could become backcountry camping and roadside camping frontcountry camping. Perhaps.

Whatever the name good practice, which means minimum impact camping, is essential and I think all of us who go out and camp in wild places should not only do this but should show we do it, both to set an example and to let those who might want to restrict our activity know that the majority of us are responsible.


  1. In the past I have often used the term "trekking" to refer to what I was doing, to contrast it with day-hiking. It is still not completely clear though, it could still be of the "teahouse-trekking" variety where you stay in lodges.

    "Backpacking" is really understood by many people to include what I sometimes call "hostel hopping", the independent budget travel that you describe in your post. And the term "wild-camping" has really been tainted by the media and many people now interpret that as what I would call "roadside camping".

    We really need a new word for the LNT backpack wild camping that we love so much.

    1. I've always used trekking to mean walks in places like the Himalaya with porters and/or pack animals. I'm going to add some words about backcountry/frontcountry to my piece as possible alternatives.

  2. Btw: Nowadays even the term "thru-hiking" seems to be fluid. For me this has always meant walking a long trail in a continuous path from A to B. However, many hikers skip/ flip sections (essentially turning the adventure in a collection of section-hikes) and still calling it a thru-hike, al long as it is completed in the same year.

    Not that there is anything wrong with that (on the contrary, it is often necessary for safety reasons, and it could also be more enjoyable because an element of time pressure is removed so one can enjoy nature more), but it makes it less clear what exactly we are talking about.

    1. I think a thru-hike doesn't have to involve completing a trail in one go. Each section hike is also a thru-hike. But if you complete the whole trail in a number of section hikes you haven't thru-hiked the trail!

    2. Yes exactly. For example, if you hike the PCT and decide to skip the entire state of Oregon in order to be in Canada before the snow and then come back to hike Oregon directly after that, in my definition you have then thru-hiked California, thru-hiked Washington and thru-hiked Oregon. If you have covered the entire PCT, you can then also claim that you have section-hiked the entire PCT. However, I discovered that most PCT hikers would in that case still claim to have thru-hiked the PCT if they have done all within the same season.

      Not that it matters. Hike your own hike and stuff :). It's just confusing if everybody use different definitions.

  3. The people who are trashing Dinnet Nature Reserve don’t need ‘educated’ they need prosecuted. The very idea that people don’t know that they shouldn’t leave human waste, tents, beer cans or cut bits off trees for fires need educated, is just laughable.

  4. The people who are trashing Dinnet Nature Reserve don’t need ‘educated’ they need prosecuted. The very idea that people don’t know that they shouldn’t leave human waste, tents, beer cans or cut bits off trees for fires need educated, is just laughable.

  5. Err, I'm an animal that likes to move and sleep.

  6. Sister Wendy Breckett Of TV fame was asked on a radio interview what the word SCUM meant to her.She replied that to her it was a person with no responsibilities. That
    word SCUM descibes a person who creates litter.