Why Do People Dirty Camp?

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Littering in Glencoe

Image Credit: National Trust for Scotland Glencoe National Nature Reserve

It seems like I can’t go more than a few days without seeing a facebook post about another ‘dirty camping’ incident in the Highlands. And, as a ten-year resident of the Cairngorms, I feel like I’ve cleaned up more than my fair share of other people’s mess when I come across it during my photography adventures.

Sadly this problem has existed since long before the pandemic, and in some places it’s been an acute problem for years. Residents of Glen Etive have been documenting dirty camping in the glen for many years on facebook. But with more people than ever now choosing to spend time in the Highlands the situation has become simply ridiculous. When the police need to start having a regular presence at beauty spots like Loch Morlich, it really makes me scratch my head and wonder why. So I decided to sit down and write this post, if anything just to straighten out my own thoughts about what needs done about it.

Disclaimer: this is all conjecture. I haven’t personally confronted anyone I’ve seen dirty camping, although I do speak to people if I see them about to light a fire in a sensitive spot. I’ve never spoken to anyone who has admitted to doing it either, but then it doesn’t seem likely that anyone would admit to it. All views are my own and not necessarily shared by those who kindly gave me permission to use the photos.

Ignorance – They Didn’t Know

I think one of the most obvious reasons people make a mess outdoors is because they simply don’t know any better. In my book ignorance is usually a forgivable offence. If you don’t know then you don’t know. And it’s all very well to say people should know, but we’ll come on to that.

In my experience, I think that the ignorant campers are not so bad, and generally don’t leave as much mess. Their behaviour is not so much ‘dirty’ as it is careless. You might find they’ve put their tent up somewhere a bit silly where it’s in the way, or they’ve not cleared up a fire properly. But at the end of the day they did come out to enjoy nature, and they’re probably willing to learn to do it better. In my experience, these are the people who listen if you politely point out their mistake and show them how to correct it. For instance, I recently approached a young couple in Glen Eanaich who were gathering deadfall for a campfire. The site they had chosen was on highly combustible soil, in one of the very few stands of granny pines you can still find in the upper part of Rothiemurchus forest.

A ring of stones does nothing to prevent fire spreading when it is built on combustible soil. Fortunately we got to this one and extinguished it before a much wider area could catch light.

I approached them and asked as humbly as I could if they would mind not lighting the fire, and explained about the soil, the rarity of the habitat, and the scarcity of deadwood in the forest. I could have told them it was illegal because they didn’t have the permission of the landowner (and the fact that it’s illegal in a designated SSSI anyway), but instead I chose to give them enough information to make an informed choice. Then I left them to it. When I went back a few days later there was no evidence of a fire there whatsoever. Meantime, elsewhere in the woods, the worst fire we’ve had in years broke out.

Ignorant campers are not so bad, because they’re willing to learn; they just haven’t done so yet. We’ve all been ignorant in our time. I’ve been an ignorant camper in the past and had fires where I shouldn’t have. But I had good people who helped me learn. I do my best to offer that same chance now.

‘Anti-Social’ Campers

The issue with approaching people about their actions is not knowing how it’s going to be received. There are, sadly, far too many cases of well-meaning folk who approach campers about noise or mess, and are met with verbal abuse at best, and physical assault at worst.

The anti social campers are pretty much the worst. These are the people who damage the countryside because they genuinely just don’t give a toss. Point out the issue to them and they treat you and it with contempt. Sadly they will always be among us, and it’s for this reason that we genuinely need enforcement of the rules by professional rangers, backed up by action from the police where necessary.

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Photo Credit: Glen Etive The Dirty Truth

The real issue here I think is that these people did not really come camping to have an experience in nature. Why on earth are they camping then, you ask? I can only imagine that they probably went camping because they wanted to go somewhere with few rules so they could get wasted with their mates, and perhaps take some recreational drugs. I really suspect that these people are coming from the demographic you’d normally find pissed up in Magaluf at this time of year. They aren’t going camping; they’re going drinking in tents.

We Came Prepared… To Destroy

One of the more baffling aspects of dirty camping to me is when you find it happening in places that are difficult to access. It’s easy to comprehend the lazy attitude to clearing up when they have obviously just camped beside their car. But when you are miles from the nearest road, in a hard to reach place, it really confuses me about their motivations. No one would come to such a place if it didn’t mean something to them. If they didn’t specifically feel some sort of connection to it, then they would never have found themselves there. They must surely feel that nature is special to them on some level. So why don’t they leave it the way they found it?

I can only suppose that for some people getting outdoors is such a rare experience that genuinely have no idea of the difference between reality and film. To them, they are getting back to nature, which means for one thing that they simply must light a fire. That’s just what you do isn’t it? It’s man vs wild after all.

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Telltale horizontal marks indicate an axe was used.

Photo Credit: Glen Etive The Dirty Truth

I remember setting up my tent once way out in the back of the Cairngorms amongst a small patch of woodland, only then beginning to notice that many of the trees had been hacked down three feet above the ground with an axe. The green poles lay semi burned in a fire pit that clearly had less trouble setting fire to the ground than it did the wet wood. I could practically see them chopping away, having a great time, feeling like absolute heroes with every swing.

Why Leave Tents Behind?

One of the things that often marks people as dirty campers is essentially abandoning the whole campsite once they’re sober enough to drive. Rubbish, human waste, even the tents simply left in situ. Hell, we’ve even seen old mattresses and speakers left behind, probably from people having illegal raves.

To me I see this as a symptom of our throwaway culture. Once used, an item becomes instantly worthless. Especially when tents can be bought so cheaply. Taking a quick scan of Go Outdoors as I write this, I found the cheapest small tent to be just £17. And a reasonably sized 2 man tent with a porch for just £40. Split that with a mate and what do you care about leaving it? How does it compare pre-pandemic to the cost of a cheap flight and a hotel or package deal? They probably spent way more on booze. Since they probably never plan on needing it again, why bother with the effort of packing it away when they can simply buy another?

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Tent abandoned along with litter.

Photo Credit: Glen Etive The Dirty Truth

The irony I see here is the fact that a tent to me represents one of the cheapest but most cost effective ways you can possibly invest in an active lifestyle. With our incredible access laws and the landscapes of the Highlands so easily reachable, you could take that tent to some of the most beautiful places on earth. But sadly, we’ve been trained to think that anything cheap means it is essentially worthless, with a life span that’s only as long as our attention span.

‘They Should Know Better’

This phrase certainly springs to mind a lot when you look at the mess that dirty campers leave behind. It certainly applies to a lot of the behaviour you see. I knew not to leave litter behind from the time I was a toddler, for instance. I knew to keep my voice down and not disturb people by my early teens.

But even so, here is the thing I wonder. I wonder how often some of these people get to have any kind of experience in nature at all, even if they aren’t focusing on it? Did they actually get a chance to learn how to behave in the countryside? Did they have anyone there to teach those supposedly obvious fundamentals? I had wonderful teachers and role models. Not everyone is so lucky.

For me it’s no coincidence that we see dirty camping going on in this country, which is now regarded as one of the most nature depleted, with the most nature deprived population, in Europe. Our natural landscape is overall in a terrible state. That’s partly what makes damage to relatively healthy parts of it all the more infuriating and heartbreaking. We have a population that is mostly urban, and with far too many in poverty. Lately I’ve read news stories about teenagers going to the beach for the first time in their lives who lived less that a mile away from it. I’ve personally worked with city kids who didn’t know what cows were when we saw some. Their whole experience until that point has been so limited that it’s unfair to hold them to a standard that we might think anything is obvious, or simple common sense.

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Photo Credit: Glen Etive The Dirty Truth

That said, maybe I’m being too forgiving. When it’s as basic as throwing litter away, some things really should just be obvious.

What Can Be Done? Education?

Dirty Camping is a behavioural issue, and like all behaviour issues it’s causes are multi-faceted and complex. And the biggest mistake we could make would be assuming there is one specific demographic at fault.

A common response is to declare ‘MORE EDUCATION’ as the answer to all the world’s problems, without any thought for how that gets delivered or by whom. Yet, in this case I have to agree, as long as we’re talking about a long term strategy of outdoor eduction for kids.

Unfortunately chances for kids to get into the outdoors as part of their official education are now rarer than ever. When I was a kid I had several chances to do outdoor activities through school, including a week-long residential at an outdoor centre. Years later I worked as an instructor delivering programs like that. It’s brilliant for the kids; that is, if they are lucky enough to attend a school that can afford it.

It used to be much more accessible. Via a network of council owned and run outdoor centres just about every child in Scotland in a mainstream school got the chance to do at least a few days of outdoor adventure as part of their education.

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But that’s no longer the case. We all know that every time there is a budget squeeze for local councils they start shutting down ‘non essential’ services. Arts funding, sports funding, they’re always first to go. And outdoor centres. Some have been kept open as charities or not-for-profits, but the overall trend over the last several decades has been for closure and privatisation of publically owned centres. That at least meant the private sector remained relatively healthy, but then the pandemic arrived. The government effort to help centres stay open was lacklustre at best.

As usual governments never seem to be aware of the need for bottom to top thinking – that is, the need to start deep down if you want to see real change at the surface. If we want the situation to look better in twenty years time then we have to get young people outdoors with proper role models today.

Are Tighter Laws the Answer?

Should Scotland’s access laws be more restrictive? I say no, because it’s not the law or the people following it who are the problem here. It’s the people who lack that fundamental respect for the landscape.

If we look to places that have taken the step of restricting access laws such as the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, which introduced bylaws against camping in 2017, then we could say they looked like a success if you measure with a narrow scope. Sure, the National Park saw a reduction in dirty camping after that. But only because the dirty campers simply went elsewhere – especially to Glen Etive.

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Photo Credit: Glen Etive The Dirty Truth

So no, I don’t think new laws are the answer. People will simply go to greater effort to ignore them – go deeper into the wild places and inflict their damage in places that are even more sensitive to it.

But I wish it were as simple as saying that the current laws just need to be enforced. It’s true that they do, and we are seeing a much better job of that recently with more rangers and police presence in the landscape. But it’s just tragic that this was ever necessary. To put an end to it we need to inspire a new culture of reverence and respect for nature.

We Must Do Better

It doesn’t take more than a few clicks on any news website these days to find evidence of the terrible damage we are wreaking on our ecosphere; and, in turn, the terrible damage it wreaks on us as it destabilises. Megadroughts, wildfires, flooding… yada yada yada. I don’t have to spend time here listing the effects that climate change is having on us physically, emotionally, and as a society. Improving the state of nature in our landscape will have nothing but positive benefits for all of us, but we have to take steps on the way to improve our relationship with it.

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Photo Credit: Glen Etive The Dirty Truth

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13 thoughts on “Why Do People Dirty Camp?

  1. Totally depressing and frustrating David. We moved to the highlands 2 years ago and I find it’s not just dirty campers, but dirty locals throwing rubbish from their vehicles. I regularly cycle around the River Carron near Ardgay (a 14 mile loop) and there’s a new can or bottle thrown away most days. There’s little reason to travel this route unless you are local, or perhaps a tradesman visiting a domestic property. The rubbish thrown by the local roadsides are also appalling given the relatively low level of traffic.

    1. When I first moved to the Cairngorms I was working a lot with school kids. I expected (perhaps naively) that young people in the Highlands would be much more connected with nature than the kids I had worked with in the central belt. Turned out I was wrong. Lots of the kids were still pretty clueless about simple things like how to put up tents, how to dress appropriately, the names of trees and animals etc… even though they lived in a national park! I think it reflects how we take things for granted if they are always there, but also the fact that a ‘connected’ modern lifestyle makes it so easy to live a totally human-centric life. It’s a great shame that we train ourselves to become oblivious to the things around us.

  2. Most of your commentary o agree with but, and it’s a big BUT, I would argue that marketing the Higlsnds as a wilderness isn’t helping the situation. It is a cultural landscape where once upon a time people lived in harmony with nature, indeed as part of nature. We need to understand more so now than ever that we are simply another part of the planet; that we have at elation ship with it. Objectifying it as a wilderness didn’t help; it simply further distances it from most folk who redline d accordingly as treating it with contempt – dirty camping

    1. Thought provoking comment, Andy. I do not disagree. The relationship between ‘wilderness’ and ‘civilisation’ is a fascinating topic which I have been reading about for many years now. Perhaps I’ll share some thoughts in a future post. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Everything in the article Why do People Dirty Camp is what I observe and feel, spot on, we have alot of catching up to do. Teach the kids and they will teach the adults. When I was in New Zealand shortly before their Christmas holidays all the schools seem to be out visiting the countryside. I was a countryside Ranger in urban and countryside environment. My best experience was taking city kids from less well off areas out into the countryside.

    1. Taking kids outdoors is incredibly rewarding when they’ve never had that chance. I used to some work with kids from rough backgrounds. One in particular I remember – classic hyperactive, disruptive, rude to everyone all the time. Put a canoe paddle in his hands and showed him how to do a J-stroke. He nailed it first time and he was just a changed person. Later that night he confessed to me he’d never, ever, been good at anything in his life until that moment. Was just desperate to find out how he could do more. Wonderful to be an agent of change like that, but I still wonder what happened to him after he went home.

  4. Interesting article, We have a small self contained (toilet, washing, cooking, sleeping facilities) and while sharing “locals” dismay and anger at dirty camping, have been disappointed at the blanket “No overnight” signs which have appeared this year.
    As the author states blanket bans just move the problem elsewhere, create resentment or become ignored.
    Legislation allowing the seizure of vehicles identified as or belonging to people who have “dirty camped” could be a helpful (tho drastic) step in encouraging better behaviour

    1. I share your frustration, having been a campervan user for many years too. It makes me feel worried that I’ll be judged by the worst behaviour of other people, or that I’ll find my favourite spots overrun or ruined by first-time visitors who don’t behave appropriately. A universal approach is probably needed, rather than lots of ‘anywhere but here’ signs; but then going as far as legislation punishes the majority for the actions of the minority.

  5. Thank you for a really thoughtful piece. I am old & cant get out in the wild like I used to but I weep inside for the rape of our countryside this year. In the early 1970s we camped in Glen Etive with the permission of Jock the keeper. My husband learned from his dad & we taught our sons the correct way to behave and the only thing we left was the marks in the grass where our tents had been. Yes education for the future, but I think it’ll need a bit of big stick as a deterrent to stop it now.

  6. I completely agree, and have been saying the same for a while, especially the point about Outdoor Education.
    I would also like to see a network of ‘Community Campsites’ throughout the country, ideally a days walk or cycle ride from each other. These would be along the lines of similar setups in Iceland, New Zealand and in some of the Scottish Islands. Simple campsites in nice places ideally with some water and trees, a small car park, some flat ground for tents and council provision of a water tap, refuse bins and WC (compost or portaloo). These sites would be associated with a village or an area and volunteers could be sought to look after them; in the same way that the MBA (Mountain Bothy Association) looks after buildings they do not own. Signage could be put up with ‘how to camp’ advice and information about the local area etc. Payment could be by on-line donation (with a suggested amount) – Bank details on the information board. No need for anyone to collect money or for a money box to be at risk of theft. Or the sites could be free as they are in some parts of Iceland.
    Taking this idea a step further; a school could ‘adopt’ a local (or not) campsite. If children were to spend even a small amount of time in ‘their’ campsite, maybe even an overnight stay, this might create a connection to a place that they wouldn’t want to trash.
    Our local Councillor was interested and supportive of the proposal, and so was our SMP. However I didn’t have the time it takes to push the idea and this year we have local warden/patrols in vans instead. I would happily join a group of people who would like to take the idea forward.

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