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Whether you are sleeping under the stars or in a tent, bivouacking and wild camping are great ways of spending a night in the heart of nature.
But can you really pitch camp anywhere?
What are the rules and best practices?
Follow our comprehensive guide!
A bivouac refers to a rudimentary, temporary campsite, pitched for a single night, from sunset until sunrise the next morning.
It is generally something that hikers, trekkers, mountaineers or mountain bikers will do as part of their sport.
Conversely, wild camping involves settling down in a single location for several nights, away from the usual camping pitches.
It is therefore more popular with holidaymakers travelling in a vehicle (motor home, camper van, car, etc.) who love nature and have more gear than your regular bivouacking enthusiast
Two very different practices which are nevertheless governed by the same regulations.
To put it simply, bivouacking and wild camping are permitted wherever they are not banned (but, as we shall see, there are still quite a lot of restrictions).
The regulations pertaining to wild camping (and bivouacking) are specified by article R111-32 of decree no. 2015-1783 of 28 December 2015:
"Camping may be practiced freely, away from the roads and public highways, in accordance with the conditions set out in this subsection, with the consent of the person using the land, provided that the owner, where applicable, does not object."
In practice, the rule is that wild camping and bivouacking are unrestricted but, please note, the law has recently added a series of restrictions.
Consequently, it is forbidden to camp:
- In woods, forests and parks, designated as nature reserves, and in sites with a protected status as part of the natural heritage
- On roads and public highways
- On the seashore
- Less than 200 m from a drinking water pipe
- Less than 500 m from a listed or registered historic monument
Please note that local authorities and prefectures can also decide, by decree, to ban camping in public places temporarily or permanently. These rules must be posted on signs in front of the town halls or prefectures.
Obviously, that doesn't leave a lot of space left to pitch your tent.
But it should be noted that, although it is not explicitly stated in the law, this regulation applies to wild camping, first and foremost. In practice, this means that you cannot settle down for several days in these locations, which doesn't seem so unreasonable, after all. If you are thinking of ignoring these restrictions, remember that they are not there to remove your freedoms, but simply to protect the environment, the paths, the forests, and the local population.
So much for the general regulations, but be aware that there are special rules governing the French National Parks and Regional Parks.
While wild camping is generally prohibited, bivouacking is often permitted.
For example, wild camping is prohibited in all the forests of the Luberon regional natural park.
Bivouacking (low-impact camping for one night, from sunset to sunrise) is tolerated, outside summer and subject to the owner's agreement. In the Mercantour National Park, regulated bivouacs are authorized more than an hour's walk from the boundaries of the park or from a road access, between 7 pm and 9 am. Camping in a tent, motor home, caravan, roof tent or any other shelter is prohibited.
To make sure that you are camping legally, you can consult the map of National and Regional Park regulations on the lecampingsauvage.fr website.
If in doubt, do not hesitate to go to the websites of each of the parks, where you will find all the necessary information.
Bear in mind that, if you set up your tent in a prohibited location, you may be fined up to € 1,500.
Now that you hold all the cards you need to understand the regulations for wild camping and bivouacking in France, you need to follow certain good practices if you want your little expedition to run smoothly:
- Arrive late and leave early: It's preferable to keep any disruption to a minimum by staying only one night in one place.
- Respect the living space or countryside where you pitch camp.
- Keep your setup to a minimum, using light tents that aren't too big.
- Ready to go to bed? Do not leave anything lying around outside your shelter (empty bottles, rubbish, chairs, etc.), to avoid giving the impression to passers-by (and the authorities!) that you are there to stay
- Choose your location carefully, avoid sleeping in wide open spaces (big beaches, etc.)
When it comes to wild camping on private fields or land, ask any farmers and/or potential owners for permission.
Finally, when it's time to leave, remove any signs of your having been there... leaving the place cleaner than when you arrived is very important!
There is no shared set of European regulations for wild camping and bivouacking. Each country has its own rules.
As a rule of thumb, just remember that wild camping is generally prohibited (or at least strongly restricted) in most European countries.
However, some of them permit this practice, e.g. Sweden, Norway, Finland (where wild camping is fully authorised) and Scotland (except on some of its islands).
As for bivouacking, the rules in Europe are a little bit more flexible than they are for wild camping.
Once again, the rules for bivouacking are more relaxed in Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Finland).
These 3 countries have a right of way called the "Allemannsretten" law (literally "every man's right"), which is an ancient custom that allows everyone to enjoy nature.
In these countries, bivouacs (and wild camping) are allowed under one condition: you must stay more than 150 m from any dwelling and respect the local flora and fauna.
You can also bivouac in national parks.
As for private land, if it is cultivated land, you simply have to ask the permission of the landowner to pitch camp there.
In the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) bivouacking is generally permitted, like certain countries in Eastern Europe: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia.
As for Western Europe, the rules are stricter and vary depending on the country, or even the region (or locality) and may vary depending on the season.
Take Portugal, for example: wild camping and bivouacking are generally not permitted. However, they are tolerated outside the summer period... as long as you are discreet and do not camp on the beach.
It would be too long and too tedious to list what is permitted and prohibited, country by country.
As you can well imagine, there are many laws and their exceptions, as well as, sometimes, a certain form of tolerance towards wild camping (more rarely) and bivouacking (more often).
The best solution is to make inquiries when preparing your expedition to a particular country, and respect the "good practices" mentioned above, which apply to France, but which are also universally accepted commonsense rules that protect nature, yourself and other people.