Stealth camping is finding a free, usually illegal, always inconspicuous campsite, spending the night and leaving without being noticed.
Questions on forums abound on the practice of finding a free camping spot.
It’s usually called stealth camping, ninja, hobo, guerrilla, urban, vagabond, whatever camping.
People discuss it’s morality, legality, practice, and execution. I have successfully stealth camped 100’s of times in many different conditions. I’m fairly adept at it because I am usually very prepared with equipment on a bike trip. There are people who make a life out of stealth camping and spend every night for years this way.
Most of my future stealth campsites will occur during long days of bicycle touring. I will also camp legally at pay sites and practice dispersed camping when available.
This article is not about dispersed camping. Dispersed camping is legal camping in unpopulated State or Federal owned lands normally found set away from large population centers. In Colorado it’s very easy to find free and legal camping throughout the National Forests, National Parks, and Bureau of Land Management tracts. There are rules, time limits, and sometimes one needs to register. Europe also has what is called ‘Freedom to Roam‘ laws. There is plenty of legal, majestic, free camping available to everyone, but that’s not what we are talking about.
If I get the opportunity to ask about camping in the area I take it. I will also ask permission if I have the opportunity. If I find myself without these options I stealth camp.
When I am stealth camping most of the time I am trespassing. That is a fact. My feelings are that I am undertaking the responsibility that I will affect nothing and no one. I need to get in and out without being noticed and get much needed rest. I have been caught several times. I have been asked to move once and did. Nothing ever got confrontational.
I regularly cut into the woods when ever convenient. It’s more about preparation than permission for me. It’s not the most enjoyable leisurely camping but it comes along with a smug satisfaction that you are a hobo. You can slip in and out without anyone knowing. On the bike I think it is easy and most of these suggestions are tooled around a bike tour.
Being flexible is the key but here are some other things I try to apply to finding the perfect spot.
Start Looking Early when Stealth Camping
My days on the bike follow a fairly routine schedule. Break camp, ride, eat, repeat the last two four times and find a campsite. I want 25 miles at 9am. 50 miles by 12 noon. 75 miles by 3pm. While I try to close out my daily century [or at 3pm on bad headwind days] I start scrutinizing camping options. I start looking for my site early and factor in how I feel, how much food and water I have, and where I am on the route du jour. I look at the map at breakfast and try to plot a course that ends up in a nice slice of wilderness at quitting time. I can always make up time on the bike tomorrow if a majestic stealth opportunity presents itself early.
Easy Set Up & Take Down
My set up for camping is fairly bare bone and lightweight. It’s built for stealth camping. Stealth camping demands low visibility and quick campsite execution. For me there is rarely food in a stealth camp and certainly no fire/stove. I will try to eat before setting up camp. My camping shelter is a tarp with a combined bug shelter, bivy sak, lightweight bag, and sleeping pad. The bug shelter has a good floor so no ground sheet is needed. I can get everything ready pitched and for a good nights sleep in 5-7 minutes. I also take the precaution of stealthing the bike if I am near a roadway where lights can be an issue with reflectors. In an emergency I could stuff everything back into a stuff sack and bungee it to my bike and be off to a new situation in a mere couple of minutes. Proper breakdown is easy enough and check my equipment to air dry everything on any sunny lunch stops. I have camped in NYC’s Central Park on a number of occasions. I don’t need a tarp, bug shelter, and bivy each night. Sometimes I’m out in the open in just my sleeping bag. You need to have the ability to make a nice comfy low visibility shelter in less than 10 minutes. Pick a tarp or tent color that blends in easy. Avoid camo patterns in certain parts of the world. Wake up early and get out before anyone is around.
Avoid Highly Populated Areas when Stealth Camping
Most of my routes avoid large cities but I pass by some medium sized ones like Omaha, Nebraska or Cheyenne, Wyoming. I try to avoid even cities of this size when stealth camping. If you get caught in a densely populated area and need to find a good safe spot look for a local high school ball fields, an out of the way cemetery, a church, etc. Cemeteries are all over the place and are full of small concealed areas where a low drag set up can thrive. I have camped at a number of High School Baseball/Football/Soccer Fields. There are stealth camping opportunities in the biggest population centers. I try and avoid this as the number of dangers increase with the number of people. I have stealth camped in NYC and Los Angeles and many more large cities. It’s a different thing in a large urban area in that the bicycle and equipment is just as big a target as you. When you are in a field or the woods I never lock my bike and I sleep peacefully. I do not sleep as peacefully in a large urban area so I try to avoid any areas with large populations in route selection.
Don’t Camp in a Dry Creekbed/Wash
I see 100’s of photos online that show people who have chosen to camp under a bridge that is clearly a dry creek bed. This never ends to delight and confuse me. I get it. It’s summer and it isn’t going to rain…this will end very badly for someone. I never camp anywhere near moving water and have seen a flash flood right up close in the deserts of Arizona. Moving water brings lots of people its way: hunters, fisherman, park rangers, picnickers, etc. Go find a spot 60 yds away from the water with some cover for the bike.
Dangers when Stealth Camping
I think the number one danger is dogs. The kind that serve as pets. You think that you are far enough away from that farmhouse to elude notice but fido hears every rustle on your thermarest neo air pad and will be barking his head off all night long or until his owner gets sick of saying “It’s just a deer!” and decides to let him out for a sniff around. Every farm in America has a dog or several and they are rightfully doing their job. Take them into consideration when selecting the perfect spot. Wildlife precautions should be taken into consideration as needed. Hang any food in a tree away from your campsite. Most of the small annoyances will be man made. Look for tell tale signs of partying and or squatter garbage, beer cans, bonfire pits, makeshift shelters, etc. avoid these areas. No one should see you enter your camp area. No one should be aware of your camp area. No one should see you leave your camp area. Be able to set camp at dusk, clean up and get to bed. Wake up early and sneak back onto the road. Sounds boring or matter of fact, it isn’t. It’s a great thrill.
See my $5 shower in a beer bottle article for how I keep clean when there is no source of water to wash in. It’s basically a handmade reusable ‘baby wipe’ in a pint wide mouth aluminum beer can. It also acts as a mild insect repellant that will get you out of your dirty cycling clothes and into your bug free zone clean and bite free. I take every advantage of gas station wash basins and streams to do laundry and wash up but when I am caught stealthing I use this method to clean up.
If I am eating in a stealth campsite it is food that requires no preparation and has no garbage associated with it. I eat it and it’s gone.
I am always stocked up and ready with reserve water for washing, hygiene, and hydration for the ride in the morning.
Take what you have learned and make things easier with each selection. Instead of waiting until you actually need to stealth camp start looking around your local area and plotting out where you could successfully stealth camp and execute it right in your comfort zone. The anxiety that comes along with stealth camping will decrease with every successful campsite.