On The Wild Side: Free Camping in Spain and Portugal

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Free camping in Spain, Portugal or camping in Europe is a great way to explore this summer. If you're thinking of free camping and want to find out what you need to know for wild camping, read on for tips and tricks and how to find free camp sites.

Last year I spent three weeks roaming around Spain and Portugal in a campervan. The biggest joy for me throughout the trip was the thought that, wherever I journeyed, home was with me. Even the most hardened long-term traveller will have to admit that at some point during extended periods ‘on the road’ you can’t help but miss your home comforts and yearn for just one evening snuggled up in your bed at home.

Free camping in Spain, Portugal or camping in Europe is a great way to explore this summer. If you're thinking of free camping and want to find out what you need to know for wild camping, read on for tips and tricks and how to find free camp sites.

Being on the road can get tiring, especially if you are camping. The constant movement, setting up and taking down of your tent, unpacking and repacking belongings can all start to wear you out the longer you keep going.

So picture my excitement, like a child at Christmas who realises the biggest present under the tree is for them, when I first opened the door to the campervan and took a look at the interior. It was all there. There was a sink and tap, gas hobs, fridge, shelves, USB points, interior lights and a large cushioned seat that folded out flat into a double bed.



I may sound slightly stupid at this next remark, but what I hadn’t appreciated was that to go on a campervan trip was like going away in a mini home on wheels. It had everything you needed for a road trip (thanks to my friend, the van’s owner, an enthusiastic campervaner): from a tiny grater for the chocolate for your hot chocolate to the bottle opener.

I have never spent any time in a campervan or a caravan. My childhood holidays were spent in canvas tents in French campsites filled with pine needles and mosquitoes, the luxuries of such styles of accommodation remained hidden behind a white wall of mystery.

I loved the fact that wherever we went on the road trip our home came with us and this is was what made the trip most special for me. If we wanted to stop, all it took was to open the side door and shake out the deck chairs and we were ready to relax. Now, don’t worry, I’m not totally trashing camping, but let’s just say my eyes have been opened to a new way of travelling.

So, buoyed up by the freedom of the van my friend and I were keen to give wild camping in Spain and Portugal a go.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.

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Credit: Ana Nikacevic

What Is Wild Camping?

Wild – or free – camping is when you decide to spend the night in places that are not registered campsites. Whether you are hiking in Spain carrying your tent and your equipment with you or on a roadtrip like I was, you may prefer not to use campsites whilst you travel.

This is easily achievable if you are in a campervan or motorhome simply because you have the ability to drive up somewhere inconspicuous and stay the night, plus given the nature of the campervan, you are more contained rather than having to pitch and sleep in a tent.

How Easy Was It To Wild Camp in Spain?

I was surprised. Finding the perfect spot to wild camp in our van was actually more difficult than I expected.

It’s not as if you really want to pull up at the side of a road and try to sleep. No privacy, noisy and it just feels a bit… conspicuously awkward.

We invested a lot of time out of our afternoon scouring the map and deciding on the area that we would try to look for a place to sleep. Usually, we’d head to forested areas or by a lake or a river that were more likely to have areas to pull up and seek shelter.

You’ll find using a map invaluable in helping you find that perfect wild camping spot. Further down this post I share my recommendations for the best map to use when wild camping in Spain.

My top tips for where to wild camp in Spain are:

  • Look out for spots near woodland
  • See if you can find any long dirt tracks in remote spots that are clearly not residential areas
  • Notice any small roads tucked away along the coastline or by lakes
  • Make sure you’re mindful of whether you’re camping on private property or farmland!

But it did take time.

And more often than not, we’d still be searching for an ideal location as the sun was setting and darkness was taking over the sky. Not perfect, but given that we were in Europe in November, we had fewer daylight hours at our disposal.

My roadtrip took me down the western side of Spain and into the Algarve, Southern Portugal. I was travelling through some pretty remote countryside in Extremadura, passed cities like Cáceres and Mérida. Extremadura is a remote area of mountains, forests, lakes and reserves including Monfragüe National Park and Cornalvo Natural Park.

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Credit: Ana Nikacevic

Know The Laws

Private property or places that are clearly sign posted stating that camping is illegal should be respected. After all, a farmer isn’t likely to enjoy you pitching up on their land any more than you would like a bunch of campers rocking up to your back garden.

A lot of places will have a signpost up somewhere explaining whether you are allowed to camp or not. Most will stipulate that you should be self-contained – i.e. have toilet facilities in your van. You don’t need to be a genius to work out why.

There’s a lot of information available on the web about the legalities of wild camping and I would suggest that you familiarise yourself with those relevant to your country.

Where and When

I was exploring the back roads of Spain and Portugal in November, which I suppose is technically off-season as it is Autumn. Still, I’m from England and I left the rain behind for a month and emerged into the shining blue skies of southern Spain and Portugal.

The cooler temperatures at night and shorter days meant I spent less time sitting in my deckchair in the evening enjoying a glass of wine than I perhaps might have in the summer. However, day time temperatures were more pleasant for sightseeing, crowds were minimal and the chances of running into other wild campers in the areas we sought a camp spot were even lower.

If you choose to venture around Europe in the summer, expect Police and local land owners to be more vigilant and challenge you, especially around the more touristy areas.

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Credit: Ana Nikacevic

Do Your Prep and Have Resources

Being organised with our supplies in advance made a big difference between whether we went hungry that night or whether we feasted.

In Spain we were off the beaten track in a big way and in these rural areas there were not local convenience stores on every corner. We had to ensure we bought enough food to last us and that we’d remembered to take into account the Spanish siestas that stretched into the afternoon and meant that the shops would be closed.

Essential Reading For Wild Camping In Spain And Portugal

I love nothing more than the reassurance of having a map book open on my knees in the van. I love the fact that if I suddenly have to divert my route or I’m not sure which way to turn, I have the map there in front of me.

I do use offline maps, such as Google, saved to my phone for when I’m out of reception. But as I’m sure you can relate, sometimes when you’re road tripping your phone is out of battery (more often than not in my case!) and so I am loathed to rely on using my phone.

Best map books roadtrips in Spain

Maps for me are an essential part of any road tripping adventure.

I found several that were invaluable to me when I was driving through Spain and Portugal, and I used these in conjunction with a couple of great books to hep me source free camping for motorhomes and beautiful, remote wild camping spots in Spain and Portugal.

The Touring Spain & Portugal 2019: in a caravan, motorhome or tent book includes over 700 sites perfect for camper vans, motor homes and even your tent. It also covers all the hints and tips you need to take in preparation for your trip. It’s a good book to have in the van so that you can be sure of where your next warm shower will be coming from!

I also recommend a solid map – as the amount of times you will be looking at the symbols and the layout of the land to check whether a place looks suitable to wild camp will be numerous.

I really liked to use the Spain & Portugal 2019 – Tourist and Motoring Atlas.

I liked the spiral bound edges to switch between the pages easily. My tip is to bring plenty of post it notes to divide your pages.

There is a really useful publication called All the Aires Spain and Portugal, 5th ed that lists various layby rest stops across Europe, which can be a helpful guide if you are looking for somewhere to empty or fill water / grey water tanks. For some reason, these guides are quite hard to come by, but you can pick up a used copy online so you can search around on Amazon for a previous edition.

If I’d had known about the All the Aires publications then I would have definitely purchased All the Aires France, as it would have helped with peace of mind knowing where was totally fine to pull up as I drove down the length of France.

They’re handy having in the car or campervan for those moments when you’re tired, it’s late in the day and you’ve not found a camping spot and you’re just looking for a place to pull over and sleep.

Know What Is Open

Research the local area to find out whether there are campsites or sports centres nearby that you could pay to use their facilities. Unless you’re by the beach it’s unlikely that public toilets would have shower facilities, and even if they did it would most likely be freezing cold water.

We were travelling in November, whilst perfect for cooler temperatures and fewer crowds, meant that we came across closed campsites and other seasonal facilities, especially in the south of France near the border with Spain.

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Credit: Ana Nikacevic

Leave Only Footprints, Take Only Photos

I love the sentiment of leaving only footprints behind you, as you can enjoy the pristine beauty of a particular location as much as the people before and after you.

Respect the land around you and remember to not leave any trace that you were there. Can you imagine how you would feel if you pulled up somewhere and it was littered with rubbish – or worse. Yeah, don’t be that jerk.

It’s crucial to clean up after yourself.

  • Have bags for all of your rubbish and take it all with you
  • Have a portable toilet in your van
  • Pack a fire pit or a BBQ that you can dismantle and take with you in the morning instead of setting one up on the ground and burning the floor
  • Bring your own wood rather than pilfering the branches from nearby trees.

One of the easiest ways to keep your camp site clean and tidy is to bring a fire pit with you.

A fire pit is a portable BBQ that stands on its own legs, raising its bottom off the ground so you do not scorch the earth with your cooking. To me, a fire pit is an absolute wild camping essential as you can use it to cook your food and keep warm at the same time! Once you are done with the BBQ, you can remove the grill and load it up with wood. You don’t need any tools to assemble it and in the morning once it has cooled down, you simply dismantle it by pulling gently on the legs and it folds down.

Take a look on Amazon at the one I use clicking on the image above for more information, pricing and availability.

It’s been a life saver on many a cold night wild camping!

Even if you don’t use it for cooking, having a heat source outside means you can sit out and enjoy the evening for longer.



How Did I Feel About Wild Camping?

If I’m totally honest, not knowing where – and whether I’d even find somewhere suitable at all – I was going to put your head down that night did leave me feeling somewhat anxious.

And those who know what I’m like know that I tend to be pretty relaxed with my travel plans at the best of times.

Sometimes it was looking like we were never going to find a suitable place. The sun was setting, we were miles from a campsite and the landscape around us was not appropriate to tuck ourselves away in for the night. I was almost in a place where I was resenting the time spent driving around to search for a camp spot. And this was going against my grain, so to speak, as I’m a firm believer in the enjoying the journey. So there were times when I wrestled with trying to sit back, relax and let it all happen.

We kept going and sooner or later it almost always worked out. One of my favourite travel stories was born out of a wild camping moment in a less than salubrious location where we were approached by a friendly stranger with an arm load of oranges, proof that kindness can touch you anywhere and brighten your day.

At the end of the trip, I was a total wild camping convert, interspersed with the odd hot shower at a campsite of course! I loved the total isolation, as strange as that may sound, and the feeling that I was tucked away from the rest of the world in my own personal tranquillity.

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Credit: Ana Nikacevic

Some More Useful Links

  • All The Aires is a useful website that lists all of the spots you can pull over legally in France, Spain, Portugal, Luxemburg, Belgium and the Netherlands for a night in your campervan. Whilst not technically wild camping, this information is invaluable when you haven’t managed to score that perfect spot and are just tired, hungry and looking for a place to stop. I wish I had discovered this before driving through France!
  • The Rough Guide has published a helpful article about how to find a good wild camping spot.
  • And Pitchup.com has a list of a few ideas about where to free camp in the UK.

More Road Trip Adventures

If you liked this you may enjoy reading about my Top 5 Journeys and the different types of transport these involved, plus my experiences in camping in the Yorkshire Dales in England versus Karijini National Park in Western Australia.

Also check out:

 

Does the thought of wild camping tick your box or am I the only one up for the adventure?

Have you ever tried wild camping? How did you find it? Do you have any funny, scary or weird stories to tell? Share your experiences with me!

 

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.

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Free camping in Spain, Portugal or camping in Europe is a great way to explore this summer. If you're thinking of free camping and want to find out what you need to know for wild camping, read on for tips and tricks and how to find free camp sites.

Free camping in Spain, Portugal or camping in Europe is a great way to explore this summer. If you're thinking of free camping and want to find out what you need to know for wild camping, read on for tips and tricks and how to find free camp sites.

6 Comments

  1. February 4, 2018 / 1:08 AM

    I love wild camping and stand firmly by the motto ‘Take only photo’s, leave only footprints’. I’m curious to know how you felt the difference stacked up between camping in a tent and camping in a van? I always camp in a tent but I never seem to have enough space on my bicycle to carry those extra things. Did van camping take away from the experience by allowing you to bring more than you needed? Or was it just as freeing as any other type?

    • February 5, 2018 / 8:09 AM

      Hi Kalen, thanks for your comment! I found the experience of camping in a van really liberating because I think it opened up the choice of where to camp really well. If you are camping in a tent, certain aspects such as the ground and shelter become important, which doesn’t apply if you’re in the van. I definitely understand what you’re saying about the temptation to bring extra stuff with you if you’re in a van – and thankfully I think I managed pretty well with this as I travel pretty light personally. But it’s nice to know you’ve got all your cooking equipment there without the worry of carrying it all! Happy camping!

  2. April 12, 2018 / 1:26 PM

    Hi there

    My other half and i have just started our love affair with wild camping and we are going to spain also. Getting a ferry from Portsmouth to Santander. Any advice?

    • May 18, 2018 / 4:06 PM

      You will have a great time road tripping around Spain! My advice would be to take a good map and get off the beaten track. Enjoy the little, traditional villages tucked away in the corners of Spain and steer clear of the big cities as they’re never fun in a camper van. Enjoy!

  3. Schadi
    May 9, 2018 / 11:48 AM

    Hi! 🙂
    I really like your article!
    Did you travel with your own campervan or did you hire one?
    Do you have any recommandations where to hire?
    Thank you and greetings from Germany! 🙂
    Schadi

    • May 18, 2018 / 4:09 PM

      Hi Schadi, I had my own campervan for this road trip. Hiring campervans may depend on where you’re getting it from. There are various companies in Spain that hire campervans such as: Flamenco Campers and AutoEurope, but I don’t have any experience of hiring a campervan. Good luck and have a great trip!

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