What is Stealth Camping?
Camping is already something for the adventurous at heart but stealth camping takes it to another level. Any time you secretly camp somewhere, private or public, legal or illegal, and move on without being detected you are stealth camping. Some call this an art and others do it out of sheer necessity. Either way, it adds an entirely new layer to the complications and challenges of camping.
The most common example of stealth camping happens on road trips when you pull your car into Walmart parking lots, rest stops or a truck stop and spend the night undetected. Other times it takes the form of wilderness hikers pitching a tent in an area that isn’t designated for camping. At the extremes, stealth camping becomes an illegal activity when people break into private properties and/or try to camp in dangerous places. Whatever form it takes stealth camping is something that probably happens right under your nose all the time, at least if it is being done right.
Why do stealth camping?
There are two major flavors of stealth camping that are the most common. The first involves a traditional camping setup with a tent or hammock but you simply set it up in a non-designated camping spot. This is popular with thru-hikers, long-distance bicyclists, and survivalists. The second involves camping in vehicles like your car or a camper van. People living the van life or those on a cross country road trip usually fall into this category. Both types of stealth camping come with their own considerations.
With traditional wilderness stealth camping, one of the biggest motivators is freedom and convenience. If you are on a long hike through the bush you really can’t take time every night to hike to a designated camping spot. Other times, when you are hiking a trail with designated campgrounds you might come across a vista you’d like to wake up to or maybe you are just plain tired. Either way, both occasions call for stealth camping.
Freedom and convenience play a role in vehicle stealth camping but the cost of lodging each night is another major consideration. If you are on a cross country road trip staying in a hotel, motel, or even at a paid campground can become pricey on a travelers budget. Free camping through stealth camping introduces a viable way to save a ton on accommodations since your vehicle works just fine as a shelter. For people with full-fledged camper vans, stealth camping presents a challenge. We will explore that a little later.
For both types of stealth campers, there is sometimes a shared motivation to just get away from it all. Stealth camping allows you to get off the beaten track and find a place that allows you quiet and solitude. If you camp, in a tent or vehicle, where everyone else does then you will very likely be thrust into that social circle of camp life. Sometimes all you want is a little peace and quiet. Stealth camping offers that.
Whether it be for freedom and convenience, saving money on lodging, finding a moment of peace and quiet, or some other motivation entirely, stealth camping is something you just might find yourself wanting to try. Depending on how you go about it you could just stumble into it and do just fine. On the other hand, if you don’t abide by certain key principles of stealth camping you could very easily be noticed at best and at worst, you do something illegal and get caught. You do not want to be awoken by an angry landowner with a gun because you decided to stealth camp on his property.
How to stealth camp
When it comes to stealth camping there are two major parts of the experience that you need to get right for everything to go well. The first part is finding the location where you are going to camp. The better you are at this the more successful your stealth camping will be. Imagine the difference between trying to stealth camp next to a busy road versus trying to stealth camp deep in a thick forest. There is a lot more to consider when it comes to this though.
The second major part of stealth camping is what you do once you are at the stealth campsite. How should you behave or not behave? What should you be aware of? What you do while stealth camping can be just as important, if not more so, than picking the right location. It’s what you do while camped that either gives you away or keeps you stealthy. A little bit of preparation and forethought can go a long way here.
On both fronts, finding the right location and doing the right things while camping, it is important to know whether you will be wilderness camping in something like a tent/hammock or if you intend to stealth camp in a vehicle. There is some overlap between the two in terms of best practices but generally, you are facing two different types of stealth camping.
Each comes with its own unique challenges. Oftentimes the divide is one of urban versus wild environments but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes you might stealth camp in a vehicle in the woods and other times you might want to stealth camp with a tent in the city. We will cover the rules that you can apply in all situations.
Stealth camping in nature
First, let’s cover stealth camping in nature. Whether you are thru-hiking, on a cross country road trip, or somehow find yourself deep in the backcountry there are several things you should keep in mind. Because stealth camping really can occur anywhere it is sometimes difficult to draw a line between what counts as urban stealth camping and what counts as wilderness stealth camping. For our purposes here we are mostly going to focus on stealth camping with a tent or hammock out in nature away from any towns or cities.
Finding a stealth site in the great outdoors: a mental checklist
Many national parks and trails have designated campsites for the many people that visit and traverse their trails. As a stealth camper, your plan is to avoid those sites entirely and try something new. This means you are going out into untested waters and there is a lot for you to consider. For every potential stealth campsite, you encounter you will need to go through a mental checklist before you can settle down for the night. The main components of this checklist are safety, legality, and chance of discovery.
Safety is obviously the highest priority. Because you are attempting to stealth camp this implies that you will be hard to see and find. That means that if you are injured or in a dangerous situation it will be much harder for others to find you. The risk of danger is also higher because you are venturing off into unofficial territory that might not be well-trodden or vetted for camping. This all places a much higher burden of responsibility on your shoulders to ensure your safety.
Legality is the next most important thing to consider and often goes hand in hand with safety. There are places in the world where private property owners will shoot first and ask questions later, despite the legality. Some people don’t mind the risk and will stealth camp illegally. You should never take that risk though. You already have enough uncertainty in terms of safety, why add to it by breaking the law?
Your chance of discovery is the last major consideration for your mental checklist. The tendency for most is to consider this first but it is really the least important if the first two factors are ok. If you are safe and legally allowed to stealth camp in the location of your choice then being discovered isn’t really a problem. What can be a problem is if you think it’s legal to camp somewhere but it isn’t or you think you are off the beaten track but you are camping right on a trail instead. In these cases spending a little extra time to limit your chances of being discovered might save you some trouble.
Finding a stealth site in the great outdoors – putting it all together
Now, let’s put all of this together. Let’s say you have found a potential stealth camping site, where do you begin. Well, does it seem safe? Are you in an area that might flood with overnight rains? Are there animal tracks or feces nearby indicating animals? Can you get back to a trail or safe place easily? These are just some of the thoughts that should cross your mind.
The more you stealth camp the easier it will become to size up a location and determine its safety. For starters, your best bet is to find a spot that feels safe and just spend some time there, maybe have a snack. In that time be observant and take note of your surroundings, your gut instincts and common sense will help.
Safety also requires an understanding of the region you are in and making plans accordingly. You should know if there is a high risk of brushfire or if a terrible storm is coming through. Also, just because you are stealth camping doesn’t mean that no one should know where you are. As one of the first rules of camping, in general, it is always a good idea to let someone know where you will be. You can even install a tracking app on your phone so a loved one can keep tabs on you. Following basic camping safety precautions becomes even more important when you are stealth camping.
After you have decided that you are as safe as you can be you then need to double-check that it is legal to stay where you want. Obviously, if you have had to climb over any fences or have seen any “No trespassing” signs then the location is not a good one. Similarly, camping inside abandoned buildings, or in/around other man-made structures is usually a good sign the area might be off-limits.
If you are inside a park you will need to find out what the park’s rules are concerning camping. In some cases, whether you are on someone’s property or in a park, it is better to just ask if you can stay there. Being a stealth camper doesn’t mean you can’t ask for permission. It is always better to do your due diligence and make sure you are permitted to camp where you are. The alternative, which definitely happens, is being awoken in the middle of the night and being told you have to move. When it’s dark, three in the morning, cold and damp moving is the last thing you will want to do.
Finally, if you are sure it is both legal and safe to stay there then you can consider ways to limit your chances of discovery. There are a few stealth camping tricks. For one, it is better to camp above trails and roads because people are more likely to look down than up.
Also, from an elevation, you can see if someone is approaching. It is also better to camp in the shadows to help conceal your tent. If you combine that with an area that has some dense underbrush and isn’t very open you will end up pretty well hidden. You should also look for footprints, both human and dog, to determine if you are near a remote hunting or hiking location. The farther you are from signs of people the more stealthy you become.
Considerations while stealth camping in nature
The basic rules, while you are stealth camping, are that you want to limit your visibility as much as possible and then leave no sign you were there. This means using minimal lights, removing any reflective materials from your gear, and definitely not starting a fire at the campsite. These bright visual cues are the fastest way to give yourself away. Aside from that, you have to consider noise. Always use headphones if you are listening to something and keep any conversations to a low whisper, remember, you’re being stealthy.
Stealth also means that you leave no trace that you were there. This is camping 101 but you need to be very conscientious of it. When you pack up in the morning double-check the site. Are there broken twigs from your tent? Move them. Did you compress a pile of leaves or a bed of grass? Fluff it back up. Do whatever you can to make the place look just how you found it.
Stealth camping with a vehicle
With vehicle stealth camping the same mental checklist of safety, legality, and discoverability applies. It also works in much the same way. You have to take time to observe your potential stealth camping spot, use common sense, follow your gut. There is a bit more to it though. For one, there are apps such as iOverlander which are made to help vehicle campers find places to stay. Also, most Walmarts in the United States will legally allow you to spend a night or two boondocking in their overnight parking lot. Point is, there is a little more infrastructure to help with vehicular stealth camping.
Finding a site to stealth camp usually just comes down to finding a good quiet place to park. You do your safety, legality, discoverability checklist and there you have it, you have a place. The big give away with vehicles, however, is the vehicle itself. If a camper vehicle looks too much like a camper vehicle it will be a dead giveaway and it will restrict where you can camp. This is why some van lifers have opted for very normal-looking work vans, cargo vans or minivans in their builds. They build them so all solar panels and ventilation systems are concealed too. There are whole blogs on this topic.
For cars, it is best if you have something kind of low key that isn’t full of bright colors. Stealth camping in a flashy Lamborghini won’t cut it. A dark tent is good and even better you should have something to cover the windows. Regardless of the vehicle type and setup though you will want to follow the same rules as if you were stealth camping in nature. Minimize the use of lights, don’t make too much noise, and leave no trace.
Stealth camping is an exciting and unique way to camp that really opens up a whole new world of possibilities. It does come with its own share of risks and concerns but with appropriate foresight and preparation, you should be okay. Simply running through a mental checklist of safety, legality, and discoverability will go a long way.
Finally, when you are set up in your stealthy camping spot minimizing light, noise, and overall impact will keep you in the stealthiest mode possible. By sticking to these principles you will be able to move in and out of some amazing camping spots without anyone being the wiser.
Bonus tip: Instead of one bonus tip, how about 50? Here are 50 of the best stealth camping tips and secrets from experienced stealth campers!