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Wild camping vs. bivouacing. And where is it allowed?


Using the right terminology is always useful when talking to others about a particular subject. One subject that often causes confusion is "wild camping". This term is often used to describe all kinds of overnight stays in the open air. But is it really true? What is bivouacbing then? I want to know more about it!


Content of this article

Definitions dissected

The definitions in the online version of the Dutch Van Dale dictionary do not take me any further:

  • Wild camping: camping in the wild, not on a campsite

  • Bivouacing: staying somewhere temporarily

According to these definitions, we can say that both actually mean more or less the same thing, namely staying somewhere. Bivouacing is then even possible on a campsite. End of discussion?


I will try something else, the online version of the French dictionary Larousse:

  • Camping sauvage: camping qui se pratique en dehors des terrains autorisés. (translation: camping that is practised outside the permitted [camping] areas).

  • Bivouac: campement temporaire des troupes en plein air; lieu de campement, campement léger que les alpinistes installent en montagne pour passer la nuit, campement transitoire en plein air, sans tente ni abri. (translation: temporary encampment for troops in the open air; camp site, light encampment that mountaineers install in the mountains to spend the night, temporary encampment in the open air without a tent or shelter).

Although this is already a little clearer, it is still insufficient to be able to say with certainty what it is all about. An interesting article that appeared in the Austrian legal journal Zeitschrift für Verkehrsrecht specifies on page 232 (translated)

  • Camping: Means ... "the overnight stay in tents with a minimum duration of stay, ... for a period of at least 24 hours. Staying in a tent during the day ... falls under the term 'camping'. "

  • Bivouacing: Means ... "the act of spending the night in the wilderness, as well as in tents or huts by soldiers or alpinists. In the alpine sense, the term 'bivouac' includes both an improvised or spartanly furnished but also roofed shelter and the act of spending the night in the open air. "

However, in the same article, bivouacging is also equated with camping when it refers to staying in a shelter such as a tent or hut, whereas spending the night in a bivouac bag (bivi) would fall under 'lagern' (translated: to temporarily stay overnight) and is therefore closest to the definition of bivouacing. But that is the legal interpretation specific to Austria.


The Swiss Alpine Club SAC states that bivouac is in the open air, without a tent and possibly in an igloo or snow cave as an emergency shelter. (Wild) camping is done in a tent outside of designated camping areas. In France, however, spending the night in a light tent is also considered bivouacing. In Belgium, staying in a bivouac area does not fall under the same regulations as camping (on a campsite).

Read and respect the rules!

So, what is it?

Based on the above, I cannot draw a clear and unambiguous conclusion. The definition varies somewhat from country to country, but the following consensus can usually be reached among hikers: (Wild) camping is generally the act of spending the night in a shelter outside of designated camping areas and usually for a period longer than 24 hours. Bivouacing is possible, depending on the country, in a bivy bag or small/light tent and for a very short period, in other words, from sunset to sunrise.


For a trek where you only pitch your tent for one night, I prefer the term bivouac to wild camping. After all, the emphasis while trekking is not on camping but on hiking. Sleeping is only a means to get through the night and to be able to continue the trek the next day with sufficient energy. Therefore, your sleeping place is only temporary. But what I prefer is of course subordinate to the reality of the law. The many nuances in the meaning of the word are important when it comes to knowing what is and what is not allowed and to avoiding problems with local authorities. After all, the regulations differ from country to country, from region to region, and from province to province. Very often, only emergency bivouacs are permitted and only in the strict sense of the word. But that is open to interpretation.


Leave No Trace

Then there is this. If we want to continue camping and bivouacing as before, it is important that everyone respects some ground rules. The website of the 'Leave No Trace' organisation has compiled a list of seven principles that can be used to minimise your impact on nature:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare,

  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces,

  3. Dispose of waste properly,

  4. Leave what you find,

  5. Minimize campfire impacts,

  6. Respect wildlife,

  7. Be considerate of others.


Kampvuur

My opinion

I don't like to adapt my hikes to the available camping grounds or bivouac sites that I encounter on the way, but I do use them if they are available in the vicinity of my destination.


If I can't use bivouac areas, I ask residents if I can camp in their garden, look on WTMG or, in extreme cases, opt for a bivouac in nature. The latter is illegal and I do it entirely at my own risk.


On most bivouac sites, there is a place where you can make a campfire, but where this is not the case, I respect this and do not make a fire. This also means that when I am bivouacking in the wild, outside the bivouac zones, I do not light a campfire. However tempting it may be! I also make sure that I leave the place as I found it: clean. The only thing you might see is the dry spot on wet leaves or grass.


Regulations by country

Below I briefly list some of the main hiking regions in Europe and their camping/bivouacing rules:


Belgium

Wild camping and bivouacing are not allowed, except on designated bivouac and/or camp sites. An overview of bivouac zones in Belgium can be found on https://www.bivakzone.be. Since the corona crisis, there is also Welcome To My Garden where you can spend the night with your tent in people's gardens.


Netherlands

Not allowed unless on designated bivouac and/or pole camp sites. All official pole campsites managed by Staatsbosheer were closed during the first corona wave and did not open again afterwards due to nuisance caused by people who did not understand what a bivouac site is really for. You can visit the following website for an overview of locations where you can still go: https://www.wild-kamperen.nl/category/wildkampeerlocaties. These are usually private initiatives.


France

Permitted wherever not specifically forbidden, i.e. on a beach, in a protected nature area, near listed (historical) sites, town or village centres and within a radius of 200 metres around a water catchment area.


In these national parks, you have to bear in mind certain restrictions: Vanoise, Ecrins, Mercantour, Pyrenees and Cévennes. In general, you can only camp in a small tent in which you cannot stand upright, you cannot modify the terrain (e.g. move stones), you cannot make a fire, you can only stay between 7pm and 9am and you usually have to stay at least one hour's walking distance from the park boundaries. In other national parks such as Port-Cros or the Calanques, all forms of camping and bivouacing are prohibited.


Switzerland

In the mountains above the tree line there is no ban as long as you do not camp in nature reserves, near forest edges or other sensitive areas. In general, it is also expected not to camp too close to mountain huts, unless it is stipulated and requested. Locally, different rules may apply, so always enquire. Please note that all forms of open-air camping are prohibited in the municipality of Zermatt (Matterhorn) and heavy fines (€4500+) are applicable for violations. A partial list of places (by canton) where you are not allowed to spend the night can be found here: http://www.alternatives-wandern.ch/biwak/biwakverbote.htm


Austria

In Austria's forests, any form of camping or bivouacing is forbidden. Above the tree line you are generally allowed, although the rules vary from region to region. In the federal states of Burgenland and Lower Austria, it is forbidden. Emergency bivouacs are permitted in Carinthia and Tyrol. However, the rules are open to interpretation here, as an emergency bivouac also includes pitching a tent at dusk. However, if you had previously planned to sleep at a certain location, this falls under the ban. The federal states that do allow (wild) camping and bivouacs are Upper Austria, Salzburg (separate rules for groups), Styria (not on meadows) and Vorarlberg.


Germany

The rules differ from one federal state to another. In the federal states of Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen (not on fields), Hamburg, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, overnight stays are not expressly prohibited. All other federal states do have such bans. In general, you are not allowed to spend the night in forests and nature reserves throughout Germany.


Offering free bivouac areas is not yet standard practice in Germany. In the Eifel, for example, you can stay in bivouac spots, but you must reserve and pay for them in advance.


Norway

In the whole of Norway you can camp or bivouac as long as you do not camp on agricultural land or in young forests. You must also stay at least 150 metres away from the nearest house. In theory, you can stay two nights on the same piece of land without the owner's permission. In remote areas you can stay longer. It goes without saying that you should respect the rules concerning 'Leave No Trace' (see earlier in this article).


Sweden

Sweden, just like Norway, follows the 'Allemansretten' policy, whereby everyone has the right to go wherever he wants. Of course you also respect the rules in force in certain parts of the country and the 'Leave No Trace' principles.


Scotland

In Scotland you can stay more than one night in the same place, up to a maximum of 3 nights, but you are expected to follow the 'Leave No Trace' principles. The only place where overnight stays are not allowed is in Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park. Please review the Scottish Outdoor Access Code before setting off.


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