Promoting responsible camping: research

This research assessed why some outdoor users behave responsibly within official guidelines, while others behave irresponsibly or illegally, when camping with tents in Scotland.

1. Introduction

1.1 Background and objectives

Scotland’s landscape and outdoor spaces make it a sought-after destination for visitors from all over the UK and the wider world. VisitScotland’s research reveals a range of emotional benefits tied to the landscape that visitors associate with Scotland, from awe to escapism.[1] Access rights under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 make Scotland even more unique, with freedoms to access the land and wild camp rarely matched elsewhere in the world.[2] These access rights bring considerable benefits to the public,[3] and enable visitors to Scotland to connect even more meaningfully to nature and the outdoors.

It is widely acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns fuelled an increase in people visiting the outdoors for recreation. Restrictions on international travel also led to an increasing number of ‘staycations’ in the UK. This impact of the pandemic alongside Scotland’s unique countryside, and freedoms for accessing that countryside, meant that Scotland became a prime destination for people to visit from across the UK.

However, increasing numbers of visitors to the Scottish outdoors have also highlighted a number of challenges, and key bodies engaged in access, visitor and land management have developed a visitor management strategy to address some of these.[4] This work has highlighted a specific issue around illegal and irresponsible behaviour when camping with tents outwith managed camping facilities, which is detrimental to the environment, the local community and the enjoyment and health of other visitors to the outdoors.

NatureScot has undertaken considerable work over many years to promote responsible outdoor access, and this activity was significantly increased during the pandemic in conjunction with partner bodies. These campaigns included introductory messages about the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC) for new outdoor users and young people, along with more targeted guidance on specific issues such as camping, fires, litter, parking and toileting.[5]

These messages were also distributed through a wide range of routes including traditional press releases and social channels, and supported by a range of resources including leaflets, posters, websites, blogs, videos and graphics for use on social media, as well as face-to-face communication by visitor management staff.

This has been accompanied by a broad range of wider visitor management, including increased patrolling by the police and rangers to engage with the public, additional infrastructure such as litter bins, temporary car parks and toilets, and regulatory measures where needed, for example to address inappropriate parking. This activity has drawn on a considerable body of accumulated visitor management experience as summarised, for example, in guidance produced by the National Access Forum on managing camping with tents.[6] The mentioned measures have played an important role in managing these pressures, but some ongoing issues remain – which are largely associated with a minority of users that can be particularly difficult to influence.

The Scottish Government wants to promote and encourage responsible behaviour, rather than deterring visitors. Attracting visitors and making the outdoors accessible for all remains crucial for rebuilding the Scottish tourism sector after losses caused by Covid-19. Spending time in the outdoors is also greatly beneficial at an individual and community level, as evidenced by the use of outdoor visits as an indicator to measure Scotland’s progress against the National Outcomes.[7] It is therefore important to avoid unreasonably limiting opportunities for responsible enjoyment in order to address the behaviour of a relatively small proportion of visitors.

1.1.1 Objectives of the research

This research sought to provide the Scottish Government with further insight into irresponsible behaviour when camping with tents outwith managed camping facilities. The ultimate aim was for the research to inform a behaviour change strategy to promote responsible behaviour so that future visitors act in a way that maintains the pristine and unique nature of the Scottish outdoors.

Specifically, the research sought to inform a communications approach to change behaviour, by identifying:

1. Who are the different audiences?

2. How can they be reached?

3. What messages are likely to resonate and change behaviour?

To achieve this, the research aimed to:

  • Develop an overview of successful approaches taken in similar settings requiring behaviour change;
  • Gain an in-depth understanding of the primary audiences (those who exhibit irresponsible behaviours when wild camping in Scotland), including:
  • Applying the Individual-Social-Material (ISM) behaviour change framework to unpack motivations and behaviour and gain insight into ways of influencing these behaviours.
  • How to reach and effectively communicate with them;
  • Develop practical recommendations for engaging with these audiences to encourage more responsible / positive behaviour (or discourage irresponsible / negative behaviour) that continue to uphold the ethos of Scottish access rights.

1.1.2 Terminology

The term “wild camping” is interpreted in many different ways. Some users reserve this term for lightweight tent-based camping in remote areas far from public roads, while at the other extreme it is sometimes defined broadly to include sleeping overnight in campervans. However, “wild camping” is the term used in the SOAC to describe camping outside of managed facilities as permitted by the access rights.[8] In this report, we have chosen to use this term as a shorthand to refer to camping with tents outwith managed camping facilities.

For this research, we focused on irresponsible behaviours linked to camping as noted in the SOAC and further defined by NatureScot and the Scottish Government: leaving litter, human waste and camping equipment behind, lighting fires as well as antisocial gatherings and noise.

The research also explored behaviours that were considered irresponsible by stakeholders in the first phase of the research, for example collecting dead wood for campfires. The ‘irresponsible behaviours’ that we included are listed in full in the methodology section below.

1.2 Methodology overview

The research involved three phases:

  • Phase 1: Scoping (December 2021-January 2022).
  • Phase 2: Primary research with target audience (January-February 2022).
  • Phase 3: Behaviour change workshop (March 2022).

1.2.1 Phase 1: Scoping

The purpose of this phase was to:

  • Collate existing relevant studies and draw out key findings applicable to this research;
  • Understand in more detail the problem of irresponsible camping in Scotland; what actions have already been taken; an evaluation of these actions; and what else may be effective in promoting more responsible behaviour;
  • Inform Phase 2 of the research, including sample building.

This phase comprised:

  • Literature review:
  • We conducted a literature review of 24 articles. The review included articles found from searching publicly available literature as well as recommendations from stakeholders. Given the scarcity of evidence specifically on irresponsible wild camping, some literature covered related behaviours, such as littering and dog-walking, to look for transferable lessons.
  • Stakeholder online interviews:
    • We spoke to 14 stakeholders from across Scotland with experience and expertise in engaging with wild campers behaving irresponsibly;
    • Seven Rangers & Access Officers;
    • Six National level representatives, including some recreation and land management organisations.
  • A report summarising the findings:
    • Published separately.

1.2.2 Phase 2: Primary research with target audience

The purpose of this phase was to:

  • Understand the target audience’s context in terms of lifestyle and attitudes;
  • Understand the motivations and attitudes that lead to irresponsible behaviour;
  • Explore barriers and opportunities using the ISM framework to diagnose the barriers and identify opportunities for encouraging more responsible behaviour.

This phase comprised:

  • Online depth interviews with 20 wild campers, of which eight took part in a paired friendship depth;
  • Depth interviews were used to give participants the space to answer without the effect of social desirability bias that could occur with focus groups or online communities. Paired depths were chosen because participants are more likely to discuss irresponsible behaviour in a setting where such behaviour is normalised by the presence of peers who have also engaged in these behaviours.

1.2.3 Note on sampling

For Phase 1, it should be noted that stakeholders were chosen by NatureScot to take part in the research because of the fact that they had particular experience of irresponsible camping behaviours. Feedback from these stakeholders therefore is more likely to reflect the relative extremes of inappropriate behaviour when viewed in a wider Scottish context.

For Phase 2, our study recruited participants who had wild camped in Scotland in the last two years. We used a purposive sampling approach, deliberately targeting irresponsible wild campers.

We worked with specialist recruiters, who use databases of the general public to find eligible participants alongside techniques such as snowballing through relevant contacts or advertising on social media.

A series of screening questions were designed to identify participants who had engaged in at least one ‘irresponsible behaviour’ from the following list (informed by Phase 1):

  • Abandoning camping equipment / litter;
  • Collecting live or dead wood for a campfire;
  • Leaving a campfire still lit;
  • Damage from campfire / BBQ, e.g. scorched vegetation;
  • Leaving traces of campfire / BBQ, e.g. burn rings;
  • Toileting next to streams / rivers / lochs;
  • Not burying faeces;
  • Leaving behind used toilet paper;
  • Camping in a group of more than 3;
  • Camping in an area where other parties are already camped;
  • Camping for more than 3 nights in one place;
  • Playing music on loudspeakers;
  • Excessive drinking;
  • Parking or driving off-road.

1.2.4 Phase 3: Behaviour change workshop

The purpose of this phase was to present the findings of the research so far and discuss and develop behaviour change recommendations.

This phase comprised:

  • A virtual workshop with the NatureScot, the Scottish Government and BritainThinks teams, alongside a few other representatives from communications teams in this space, structured as follows:
  • A debrief of the findings from Phase 2 of the research;
  • A facilitated workshop, using the opportunities and barriers uncovered from the previous phases to map potential behaviour change communications and interventions framed around the ISM framework.

1.2.5 Note on this report and interpretation of data

The findings of this report rest heavily on Phase 2: interviews with 20 wild campers who behaved irresponsibly. The qualitative nature of this research and small sample size means that findings cannot be treated as fully representative of this group of users. They help to highlight different behaviours but cannot reflect the scale of one behaviour compared to another.

1.2.6 Note on the Individual, Social and Material model (ISM)

This report uses ISM as a means to analyse behaviours and make recommendations. ISM is a model that has been developed from the idea that three different concepts – the Individual, Social and Material – influence the way that people behave.

It is designed to be a practical tool to help make reccommendations to change behaviour, as a result of understanding the way in which people’s behaviour is influenced across these multiple contexts.[9] One of the key principles of ISM is that interventions should take account of influences across multiple contexts - I, S and M - in order to achieve substantive and long lasting change.

Traditional behavioural interventions have tended to focus on either the individual, or on the material contexts, and sometimes on both of these. However, this is often insufficient to lead to the change in behaviour that practitioners are expecting. The approach described here has more chance of success because it encourages broader thinking and points towards collaborative working to develop a more integrated package of interventions.

Figure 1. How different influences on behaviour are mapped onto the ISM model.

Influences considered within the ISM behaviours model are as follows:

  • Individual – values and beliefs; attitudes; costs and benefits; emotions; agency; skills; habit.
  • Social – opinion leaders; institutions; norms; roles and identity; tastes; meanings; networks and relationships.
  • Material – rules and regulations; technologies; infrastructure; objects; time and schedules.



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