Wild camping dusk

Credit: James Abbott

Nothing beats being out in the great outdoors shooting landscapes at the golden hour. But the problem with shooting at sunrise and sunset, particularly in the summer months, is that they can be extremely early and late, respectively. Throw in a drive and a two-hour trek to the location into the equation, and it quickly becomes apparent that you may as well stay up all night. But, it doesn’t have to be like that; there’s a much simpler solution that will give you plenty of sleep.

With wild camping you’re on location at the best times to shoot landscapes, and if you plan carefully you can pick locations suitable for both sunset and sunrise, astro shots and of course a shot of your tent lit from the inside at dusk. You don’t have to spend a fortune on camping equipment either; just a few hundred pounds will get you a lightweight tent, warm sleeping bag, sleeping mat and a hiking rucksack which might all provide years of use.

Don’t forget campsites

If trekking up a mountain carrying all your photography and camping equipment isn’t your thing, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the great outdoors and stay as close to your desired locations as possible. Everything you need for a wild camp could weigh 10-20kg, and carrying that up a mountain is hard yet rewarding work, but only if you can manage it.

Staying at campsites means you won’t have to carry a heavy backpack, and you can still enjoy simple luxuries such as toilets, hot showers and other facilities that will help to make your stay more comfortable. The main thing is that you’re close to desired locations, and campsites are often closer to more remote locations than hotels or B&Bs.

Another advantage of the campsite option is that you can use a much larger tent than if you were wild camping, which in turn means you can have a more comfortable bed and generally more space to move around. You’ll still have to get to your desired locations for sunrise and sunset, but this may only mean waking up an hour or so earlier than if you were on location.

Top tips

Wild camping food

Credit: James Abbott

Plan your trip

It goes without saying that planning your wild-camping trips will make them easier and more enjoyable. OS Maps and Google Maps are a great way to plan routes and find potential locations, and if you’re using the OS Maps app you can download routes (GPX files) that other people have created and use these in conjunction with the GPS on your phone.

Carrying enough food and water is essential, and there are lots of options available ranging from dehydrated meals that simply need water, to ready-cooked meals that can be eaten hot or cold. In the summer eating cold food is no problem, but in winter hot food and drink is a great way to warm yourself up. And most important, don’t forget to tell someone where you’re going and how long you’ll be.

Wild camping equipment

Credit: James Abbott

Keep camera kit to a minimum

When you mix photography with wild camping you quickly realise how little kit you actually need when you’re out shooting landscapes. Of course, when you’re out for the day there are all sorts of things that are nice to have in case you need them, but when you’re hiking with a heavy backpack it is ideal for you to get your kit down to the bare minimum possible.

A camera and wideangle lens is a must, and if you have one it pays to carry either a superzoom or a medium telephoto such as a 70-200mm f/4. A shutter remote, spare battery and some simple lens-cleaning accessories are also helpful. Finally, don’t forget your fi lters and make sure they’re safely packed to avoid damage in transit.

Wild camping Glyder Fach Snowdonia

Rock formation on Glyder Fach in Snowdonia, North Wales, at sunrise. Sony A7R III, 16-35mm, 1/4sec at f/11, ISO 100. Credit: James Abbott

Is wild camping legal?

Wild camping is actually illegal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with Dartmoor being an exception. You can camp with the permission of landowners, but this isn’t always possible to obtain. In places like the Lake District and Snowdonia wild camping is often tolerated away from roads, buildings and enclosed farmland. As long as you respect the land and don’t turn up to have a party, you’ll generally have no problems. The key to success is to arrive early, pitch up just before sunset, and pack up early the next morning just before sunrise so you’re ready to shoot as the light gets good. You should leave no trace of your camp.

In Scotland, things are slightly different, and you can camp almost anywhere as a result of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. As long as you’re not camping on enclosed farmland, in someone’s garden or in a park, you’ll have no problems at all. When it comes to wild camping, common sense and respect prevail.

A tale of two camps

Things don’t always go to plan, but there are ways to maximise photo opportunities and remain motivated

Wild camping Castell Y Gwynt

Castell Y Gwynt in Snowdonia at sunset. Sony A7R III, 16-35mm, 4 sec at f/8, ISO 100. Credit: James Abbott

When you’re up in the mountains only one thing is certain – that conditions can change in an instant, and the weather may be the complete opposite of the forecast. Checking the weather report before leaving, however, remains important, and there are mountain-weather forecasts that can be
found online.

On a recent wild-camping trip to Snowdonia, this was exactly what happened on the first night. After a gruelling climb to the Snowdon summit, despite clear skies and calm weather being forecast, the summit was covered in thick cloud and extremely windy. So, with sunset just over an hour away I headed down the Watkin Path to set up camp at a location I’d found on my OS Map when planning the trip.

At 4 am my alarm went off and I tentatively unzipped my tent to see what kind of a morning I’d woken up to. Unfortunately, my location was shrouded in thick cloud, or ‘clag’ as it’s often referred to. By the time the sun would be high enough to break up the cloud the light wouldn’t be favourable, so I made the tough decision to head back to my car to plan the second day and replenish my food and water.

Wild camping Watkin Path

Walking down the Watkin path, Snowdonia. Samsung Galaxy S8, 4.2mm, 1/200sec at f/1.7, ISO 50. Credit: James Abbott

Things can only get better

The plan for day two was to camp on Glyder Fach, which is a fantastic location for sunset, sunrise and astro photography. Looking at the PhotoPills app I knew that the moon was going to be rising at 9pm, and it was going to be in the same part of the sky as the Milky Way, so sunset and sunrise would be my focus.

Later that day I drove back to the Ogwen Valley where I could park my car and walk to Cwm Idwal and take the Devil’s Kitchen route up to the Glyders. The walk was hard work in the 30°C heat, and carrying an 18kg backpack wasn’t helping. But after many breaks and quite a few Fruit Pastels, I reached the summit of Glyder Fach and set about looking for a flat piece of ground to pitch my tent.

At this time it was about two hours before sunset, so I decided to set up camp early and explore the area for suitable viewpoints for sunset and sunrise. The sky was still fairly clear, but clouds were moving in from the south so there was potential for a more impressive sunset than the previous evening.

Wild camping Moel Siobod sunrise

Atmospheric sunrise shot of Moel Siobod from Glyder Fach in Snowdonia, Wales. Sony A7R III, 70-200mm, 1/30sec at f/11, ISO 100. Credit: James Abbott

Candy floss colour

My plan for sunset was to shoot a classic composition of Castell Y Gwynt – a jagged outcrop that looks like something from Game of Thrones. I found my shooting position and waited as cloud came into the shot and the scene was filled with bright pink light. The fluffy clouds looked like candy floss, and after the previous night’s sunset I was extremely happy and shot a number of compositions before heading back to my tent.

It was now after 10pm and still fairly light so I set up my camera to shoot a glowing tent shot. After another hour of waiting I was able to take the image I wanted, and seeing the moon was as bright as it was, I knew that there was no chance of astro photography tonight, so I went to bed ready for a second 4am alarm.

After thick cloud the first morning I was slightly more anxious about what I’d wake up to. When I emerged from my tent I was greeted with amazing cloud to the east which was just beginning to pick up the colour of the rising sun, whereas facing north-west towards Snowdon there was mist and a lot of haze.

I headed over to the Tryfan side of the mountain to hopefully capture this iconic mountain in a sunrise shot, but here too the haze was extremely thick in the valley. I took a few shots before heading back to the side facing Snowdon, where I was able to take an atmospheric shot of Moel Siabod shrouded in mist. It certainly wasn’t the cloud inversion we all dream of, but it was still a pleasure to experience.

Once the sun had risen further it was time to head down and enjoy a cooked breakfast and mug of coffee before the four-hour drive home. Despite tricky conditions throughout the short trip, it was still possible to get some images I was happy with – shots that certainly would have required a lot more work and effort if I’d not camped on location.

And as always, if you don’t try, you’ll never have a chance of shooting locations in the conditions you dream of, so overall it was a great trip.

Kit list

Travel tripod For landscape photography a tripod is essential, and the lighter the better – so choose a carbon fibre travel option.

Backpacking tent A one- to two-person hiking tent will weigh between 1.5kg and 2.5kg, with the most expensive models being the most lightweight.

Hiking backpack Use a hiking backpack with a capacity in the region of 60-75 litres so you can comfortably carry everything you need.

Camera insert Use a camera insert such as the Tenba BYOB 10 which will keep your camera safe when carried in your main backpack.

James Abbott is a landscape and portrait photographer based in Cambridge. He’s also a freelance photography journalist and editor specialising in photography techniques, tutorials and reviews. See more of his work at www.jamesaphoto.co.uk.