4 Jun, 2023 @ 20:27
5 mins read

INTO THE WILD? Why it’s generally illegal to pitch your tent away from Spain’s dedicated campsites

Wild Camping Spain

THE idea of sleeping off-grid in Spain’s beautiful countryside appeals to nomadic souls and and nature-lovers. We feel the call of a shaded woodland, mountain valley, or sandy beach. However, wild camping isn’t easy (or encouraged) in Spain because the government strictly regulates the natural environment.

Unlike in some other European countries, such as Sweden, it’s generally illegal to pitch your tent on public land or National Park. Instead, you’re supposed to use official campsites that have dedicated facilities and keep control of rubbish and waste.

On occasions when wild camping is allowed, there are strict rules and restrictions. By the time you mount your tent, you’ve probably encountered more ‘red tape’ than you expected.

Regardless of how attractive a forestry trail or grassy patch might look, camp in the wrong place, and you could receive a ‘multa’ (penalty fine). If you don’t want to be denounced, it’s important to research the rules in your area, as enforced by Spain’s ‘Medio Ambiente’ (environment agency).

Agente Medioambiental
The Medio Ambiente enforces rules on the National Park. Photo: Ministry of Interior.

The rules of the National Park

OK, let’s be honest. If you find a remote spot, hidden amongst trees and well away from the nearest 4×4 track, the Medio Ambiente isn’t likely to see you. Maybe you could buy a camouflage-coloured tent, so it blends with the foliage.

However, you could be unpleasantly surprised. There are first-hand reports of hawk-eyed Medio Ambiente agents spotting exhausted hikers, who wanted a daytime kip under canvas, and making them dismount their tents.

Furthermore, if you’re a rookie camper, you could easily break the rules without realising. If the Medio Ambiente suddenly appears, you could be fined €300 for an illegal tent and €3,000 if you are posing a fire risk by lighting a barbeque (don’t do it!).

Richard Hartley, an expert mountain guide at Spanish Highs, in Lanjarón, advises: “Camping is allowed in the National Park but there are rules and restrictions. Large groups should apply to the National Park for permission. Small groups, with three or fewer tents, containing a maximum of 15 people, should notify the National Park office of their intention to camp by post, fax, or email.”

“You can only pitch the tent one hour before sunset and it must be taken down within one hour of sunrise. You can only stay one night in the same place. You can only camp above 1,600m. In the summer, this rises to above the tree line – about 2,200m – because of the fire risk. You must not pitch within 500m of a guarded refuge or public vehicle track, 1km of a tarmac road, 50m of a mountain lake or river. Also, not on private property without written permission from the owner.  Leave no trace and take all rubbish away with you.”

Chipperjo A Bivouac Mounted Beside A Beautiful Small Lake On On F5795ab4 3d24 46fe B1a5 B43ba6c36b42
Tents on the natural park are heavily restricted. Photo: Midjourney / J. Chipchase

Cautionary camping tales

Even if the authorities don’t find your clandestine camp, that’s not the only challenge you might face off grid.

Anna Heimkreiter of Órgiva said: “I’ve wild camped a lot. I once woke up to a man with a rifle in front of my tent, had slugs in my shoe, was surprised by a sandstorm, heard boars and deer mating right in front of my tent, got invited for coffee by strangers… it was great!”

Josh Shenton says: “Once in Portugal, we pulled over with the van and pitched the tent in what we thought was a field by a B-road. Around 20 minutes later, a car was outside the tent flashing its lights. I guessed it was a farmer. When I spoke to the driver, he explained that I was in the middle of a main road. Many roads in Portugal were still not asphalted. Oops!”

Susannah Hilty says: “I did a lot of wild camping in southern Europe. Having escaped from a terrible wildfire in Corsica, I understood the sentiment of locals and police that it was getting too dangerous. Too many disrespectful campers leave glass and other garbage.”

A single father reminisces: “The police stopped me for four hours, in France, for wild camping in the forest with my six-year-old daughter. This was during our bike tour to Barcelona. When they asked why we didn’t go to a hotel or camping, I asked if he could afford to live in a hotel, and he accepted that. The stop was really to check on my daughter. A child with their single dad must have been an unusual sight…

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Mind the drop! As well as being dangerous, mounting your tent on a walking path is illegal. Photo. Jo Chip.

Where to go wild

Despite the restrictions, there are places in Spain where you can enjoy a night under canvas with beautiful vistas. These include:

  • Natural Parks such as the Sierra de Grazalema, Sierra de Cazorla, and Sierra Nevada. Search for designated camping areas or consult park authorities for current guidelines. One reader said of the mountains north of Madrid: “There is “no one there – it’s like Ozark”.
  • Andalucia has a beautiful coastline, and there are secluded spots where you can camp close to the beach – especially the ‘hippie beaches’ that have always attracted overnighters. However, be mindful of protected areas, private property, and local regulations. Cabo de Gata-Nijar Natural Park and Costa de la Luz are favourites with campers.
  • Rural (inland) Andalucia offers picturesque countryside where you can find peaceful spots off the beaten track. Be respectful of farmland and private property.
  • Hiking trails can provide camping opportunities. The GR7, GR141, and GR249 are long-distance routes where you can find suitable spots, subject to regulations that you should check first. Don’t pitch up on the actual track!
  • Your local alternative community may allow (or at least condone) wild camping. This is the case in the Beneficio valley, located between Cáñar and Órgiva in Granada region. Take good vibes and a guitar!
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Beneficio where people camp wild. Photo: J. Chipchase

Hints and tips

Folding tents – are they worth it?
The so-called ‘2 second tent’ is best avoided for your ‘clandestine’ camping trip, unless you can pack it away successfully – this clearly requires a degree in engineering. Our reporter spent an hour trying to collapse and fold the three-man tent, while various onlookers could not do it either. Imagine if the Medio Ambiente told you to decamp immediately. They’re not going to wait while you try (and fail) to fold the tent.

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This isn’t easy! Photo: J. Chipchase

Pack what you need
If you’re going on a long hike before you pitch up, remember to carry sufficient liquids, food, and a torch. Dehydrated food packs might be handy. Don’t forget a change of socks and undies. However, what you don’t need is a 25kg backpack making your hike almost impossible.

Leave no trace
Remember, when wild camping, to remove all traces of your visit. Be responsible, respect wildlife, don’t drop litter, and clean up everything you’ve used. For obvious reasons, a small spade might be handy. Do not leave loo roll lying around!  

Research local regulations
Before setting off, research the local regulations. If required, you should ask the Medio Ambiente for permission to camp. You don’t want that 300e fine arriving!

Go small
As one reader suggested, if you’re in an obvious place, don’t put up a huge tent – instead use a waterproof cover, tarpaulin, or bivouac to protect yourself. Or even just a sleeping bag.

Be safe
Don’t pitch up near anything dangerous, such as ‘barrancos’ and potholes – scan around for hazards first.

You could always sleep in your car…
It’s not the same experience, but it’s legal to you sleep inside your vehicle (usually for 1-2 nights only in the same spot). Don’t put sun loungers and tables outside the vehicle, as that is not so legal.

Arrange to camp on private land
If you have a friend who owns a rural property, perhaps you could arrange in advance to camp on their private ‘campo’ or garden, thereby avoiding any problems.

…or go to an official campsite!
There’s something to be said for a legal campsite with a clean swimming pool, facilities block, WiFi connection, gym, café…  And no risk of ‘multas’.

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