For Carl Lange and Ellie Berry, it was a point of pride that when they packed up their camp in the morning, nobody would know they’d been there.
Between April 2017 and July 2019, the Dublin-based couple walked all 42 National Waymarked Trails in Ireland — a total distance of around 4,000km — becoming, they say, the first people to walk them all.
“We’d always gone abroad and people would say ‘you’re from Ireland! That’s amazing!’ and we’d say ‘is it really?’” says Carl, 29.
“We wanted to see the country we live in,” says Ellie, 26.
Hiking six months on, six months off (Carl’s day job is in software development, Ellie’s a photographer), they used official campsites along the trails when possible but they also did a lot of wild camping — pitching their tent in a place other than a designated campsite.
“It’s a bit fraught. We’d never wild camped in Ireland before. We didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for,” say the couple.
In Ireland, all land is owned by somebody, whether private landowner or the State, and anyone using that land does so with the owner’s goodwill, and not as a statutory right.
“We wild camped everywhere, from river bank and mountain tree-line to coastal cliffs and someone’s back garden. Even on a golf course — with permission — we camped out on the green in Co Offaly,” says Ellie.
“It can be quite difficult to find places that explicitly say ‘yes’ to wild camping. There’s often a tacit acknowledgement that you can, as long as you’re being responsible,” says Carl.
Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park in Co Mayo allows it, but not all lands in Nephin Beg Mountain Range and Owenduff Bog areas are National Parks-owned.
Many are privately owned, and access to these isn’t a right but a matter for individual landowners. Wicklow Mountains National Park allows wild camping in the ‘greater national park’ but not in the valley of Glendalough. Killarney National Park doesn’t allow wild camping.
Coillte also has some designated wild camping spots. Waterways Ireland doesn’t have an official camping policy, but advises seeking landowner-permission, causing no obstruction, and following Leave No Trace principles —seven principles that aim to reduce any damage that might be caused by those engaged in outdoor activities.
“The mantra for many wild campers is: If you can’t see any house or anybody to ask, as long as you follow Leave No Trace, it’s ok to wild camp,” says Ellie.
While walking the trails, the couple say they never met a landowner who refused a request to camp, and though there were sometimes “confused expressions, a lingering pause”, they were always pointed towards a field or piece of land.
“Leave No Trace is very important to us as a principle. It only takes one or two to make a mess and make it unpleasant for everybody,” say the couple who, for example, never once lit a campfire.
Apart from the lasting harmful impact it can cause to landscapes, they didn’t want to worry anyone. “It’d definitely worry people to see smoke coming from around the corner,” says Ellie.
It’s all about taking responsibility, so you heed signage, for example. “If there’s a sign saying ‘nesting eagles here’, you wouldn’t camp; nor would you if there are endangered or invasive plant species.”
Leave No Trace is about leaving nothing behind. “Pack it in, pack it out. If you bring something, you have to bring it away: Rubbish, waste, even orange peel,” says Ellie.
Since then, thankfully, after proactive, positive efforts to address the situation, Glenmalure Pure Mile volunteers have reported a "huge improvement" there.
Leave No Trace Ireland CEO Maura Kiely says the Irish countryside is very precious. “Everyone who lives and travels in it has a responsibility to it. Wild campers have a responsibility too,” she says.
Kiely has "anecdotal evidence from all stakeholders" that over the past five years people are increasingly using the outdoors for recreation.
“With Covid-19, there’s been a surge of people using the outdoors, in particular camping. I’m aware the collective mark on the environment is increasing,” she says, adding that the social and environmental impact on elements including water quality, biodiversity, wildlife, farm animals, vegetation, and local residents’ privacy is a concern.
“By following a Leave No Trace ethos, you commit to acting as a guardian of our countryside for now and for future generations," she says.
Ellie and Carl have many memorable wild camping experiences. “The biggest discomfort was waking up in the morning to find the field full of cattle. In some countries your worry is wildlife that’d kill you — in Ireland, it’s exuberant cattle!”
They’ve been given many cups of tea, were once gifted a single egg and learned that a smile goes a long way.
Wild camping along the Barrow River, near an old derelict house, they met a man who’d been the lock-keeper for that area. “His great-aunt was the last person to live in that house in that remote area.
He told us that in winter the family and farm animals would move into the second floor of the house because the river would flood and completely submerge the ground floor, a wonderful piece of history we’d never otherwise have learned,” recalls Ellie.
With wild camping there are many grey rules. “People have to follow those rules. It’s tough to sit in that grey area,” says Carl, adding that what’s important is to be kind. “Be aware of what you’re doing. Treat everybody else like they belong there. Be respectful and deferential to wildlife.”