Hello BTP readers, “JimboTrek” here.
Over the last ten years or so I’ve amassed 4,000+ miles of bicycle touring experience and over 3,200 miles of hiking experience. Most of the nights I’ve spent traveling involved camping – and a large portion of those nights required that I partake in what is commonly referred to as “stealth camping”.
During my travels, I’ve come to find stealth camping an occasionally necessary (and even unavoidable) part of long-distance bike touring. Like nearly all adventurers, I don’t have an unlimited budget for motels or pricey established campgrounds every night, and many times these luxuries aren’t even available. Since many factors determine daily mileage, I rarely know where I’ll be sleeping at the end of each day. But this, to me at least, is part of what makes bike touring so exciting.
As Darren mentioned in a previous article on this same subject, you want to use good judgment and choose your campsites wisely. If you don’t feel comfortable stealth camping—then don’t do it. But in all reality, stealth camping doesn’t have to be particularly stealthy or illegal. I certainly can’t condone the latter. Avoid private property. The last thing you want is to wake up to an angry land owner… or worse.
With that said, I’ve come to find that if you simply ask property owners (nicely), most times they will grant you permission to camp on their land, and may even offer other free amenities!
In my experience, rural environments have the most camping possibilities, followed by small towns and suburbs. Urban areas are the most difficult to find safe places to camp, but it’s not impossible if you know where to look. (You can always ask a local for help.)
I’ve come to find that the trick to stealth camping is to get far enough away from trafficked areas and most people, but not so far away that you have to spend valuable daylight hours hunting for a flat, appropriate space to spend the evening.
If you do choose to stealth camp in a trafficked or questionable area, make sure to set-up late, depart early, and leave no trace. These three things are paramount to being both safe and responsible when stealth camping.
As Darren has already given you suggestions on places not to camp, I will give recommendations on places I’ve used in the past that have worked well for me. Your results may vary.
Public School Grounds:
Public school grounds are great for camping, particularly during the summer months and weekends. Aside from the fact that there is plenty of space to stretch your legs, many schools have water-fountains. Some even have baseball field dugouts which can provide you with shelter—so you may not even need your tent! Some also may have Porto-potties. If possible, avoid camping at schools on school nights, unless you get going really early… or you happen to be a teacher! (Normally baseball fields/dugouts are great, but I once camped at one that was located right near a busy metro station and the train rolled in every half hour; whistle blaring. Zero sleep!)
I’ve used these many times. Many parks have picnic tables (sometimes under pavilions), a water source, and/or bathrooms. Camping under a gazebo is always tempting. Be wary of camping in a park located in the center of town. Best choice is a park on the outskirts of town, if possible. Many state parks have campgrounds, but in the ones that don’t—you might need to stealth. Some parks are referred to as highway “waysides” on maps (tagged with an icon). They usually have picnic tables but not much else. Waysides can be a good choice, as they’re rarely visited at night, but some may be along a busy highway. Be wary of those, as well as city parks. Again, use proper judgment.
Formal Campgrounds (Off-Season):
Campgrounds typically operate in the summer months, but if you’re traveling in early spring or late fall, most campgrounds are closed for the season, deserted, and thus ideal. Keep in mind that bathrooms will probably be locked and water spigots might be shut off.
The woods are usually the ideal place if you want to be away from streets and away from people. As long as you’re not on private property, you should be okay. Avoid camping in or near a trail-head. Gear is more likely to be stolen at trail-heads. Parking lots should also be avoided – no matter what time of year.
I’ve camped at a few that were actually deserted during the summer, which was unusual. The ones I’ve used actually had amenities such as water-spigots, open-air showers, pavilions, etc.
Sometimes a good choice, but ideally, you should ask permission first. Firemen are usually friendly.
i.e. Outdoor flea market sites, construction sites, etc. Could be OK, but shouldn’t be your first choice. Exercise caution.
Cool places to stealth if you use caution. If possible, camp behind bushes or at least on the “back 9” if you’re a late sleeper, as some golfers tee off at 6am! (I once camped on a golf course; It was getting dark and I had no other options. A guy spotted me from the window of his home, but instead of hassling me, he brought me a mug of fresh coffee then next morning!)
If you’re not spooked out with the notion, a graveyard essentially guarantees a peaceful night’s rest. However, I’ve only camped in/near a graveyard twice, and both times I did it because I had little other choice. Many such places have a caretaker and/or locking gates, (and no trespassing signs) so you might want to stay if , and only if, there are no other possibilities.
Beaches are always tempting, but you should be very careful about camping on beaches or in the sand dunes. Many of these locations are illegal to camp in, so use extreme caution. If you can swing it, beaches are an ideal camping spot.
Backyards & Private Homes:
I wouldn’t recommend crashing in someone’s backyards without permission, but you may be surprised by what you receive if you ask nicely. Many times you will receive a whole lot more than just a space in the yard on which to sleep.
Have you tried camping in any of these locations? What kind of results did you receive? What others locations are good for stealth camping?
Jim Dirlam (aka JimboTrek) has bike toured through the northern/central Rocky Mountains, all of the New England states, and NY, NJ, PA, IL. Additionally, he has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail & NY’s Long Path.