A guide to camping and caravanning abroad
There is something a tad scarier about the heavy hand of the law descending on your shoulder when you’re abroad. Particularly if you don’t speak the language, are on your own or didn’t know you were breaking the law anyway by getting a fish drunk in Ohio or failing to smile in Milan. (Not that bonkers laws are the preserve of other countries either – in Britain, it’s illegal to die in Parliament, illegal to be drunk and in charge of a cow in Scotland and – our favourite – perfectly permissible for a pregnant lady caught short to demand a policeman’s helmet to use as a loo.)
Luckily when camping abroad, laws and etiquette rules are pretty much the same the world over. Keep the noise down at night, don't let the kids or the dog run wild and be careful with your campfire – these apply almost everywhere you go. But there are some rules, whether legal or etiquette, that are specific to different countries, as well as some things to be generally aware of when camping abroad. These tips should keep you on the right side. Except if you’re driving on the left, of course…
- If you're planning to wild camp, keep in mind that the laws in Europe and elsewhere can be different than the UK, where wild camping is generally tolerated. You can normally wild camp in France, but not build a fire. Wild camping is illegal in Greece, but no problem in Norway or Sweden as long as you stick to the basic rules of cleaning up after yourself and being careful with your campfire. And you can be fined up to $10,000 in New Zealand for illegally dumping campsite waste or litter.
- Camperstops are free or very cheap places to park a campervan or motorhome for the night, and are all over Europe, mainly so that anyone stopping there will contribute to the local economy by using the local shops and services. They're called Aires de Service in France and Belgium, Stellplatze in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Area di Sosta in Italy, Bobils in Norway, and Area de Servico para Autocaravanas in Spain and Portugal. Wherever you are, you have to be able to both cook and sleep in your vehicle for it to be eligible, caravans generally aren't allowed, and your vehicle has to be 'self-contained', i.e., have a toilet and onboard water containers for both fresh and waste water.
- Ask about rules and advice on dealing with local wildlife wherever you are. It's probably not going to be much of an issue in Europe, where 'dealing with the local wildlife' normally means 'buying insect repellent', but you need to be a lot more careful when camping somewhere like North America. Many US or Canadian campsites have very strict rules about food storage – food having to be stored in a metal locker or hung from a tree – in order to keep bears away.
- Check rules on showering and bathing for different countries you visit. If you're planning on a dip in a natural hot spring at a campsite in Sweden, for example, you might be asked to shower naked and rinse out your swimwear in front of the lifeguard before being allowed in the pool, to avoid contamination of the natural waters. In France, men are only allowed to wear Speedo-style swimming trunks in the pool, not shorts, and everyone going for a dip has to wear a bathing cap.
- Research the driving laws of any country you go to if you're planning on hiring a car, as some might be different to what you’re used to in Blighty:
- France requires a minimum distance of 50 metres between your car and the one in front. And, as of 2012, all drivers in France legally have to carry a portable breathalyser test. (They cost about two euros for a single use test and are available in most French garages and supermarkets.) France also requires at least one high visibility vest to be carried in every vehicle; in Spain, it's one vest per passenger as a minimum.
- Driving while wearing sandals or flip-flops is illegal in Spain. (It’s also illegal to spit in Barcelona, but you wouldn’t be doing that anyway. Tsk.) Also in Spain, if you wear glasses to drive, you’re legally obliged to have a second pair in the car with you.
- It’s illegal to run out of fuel on the autobahn in Germany.
- In Denmark, drivers must have headlights on at all times, even in the daytime (dimmed, obv). Drivers must also check their brakes, steering and lights before each journey – and honk their horn for good measure.
- Dirty cars are illegal in Belarus. (As they should be. Tsk again.)
- Drivers in Serbia must always have a three-metre rope and a tow bar in their driving kit.
- You can’t eat or drink while driving in Cyprus, or toot your horn within the vicinity of a hospital.
Confuddled? A new Foreign and Commonwealth Office widget lists driving rules and advice for countries all over the world, so there should be no reason to feel the heavy hand of the law on your shoulder when camping or caravanning overseas. Unless you kill a mouse in Norway without then eating it, walk down a main street in Antwerp wearing a red hat or name a pig Napoleon in France…