Adventure, Primitivism, Travel

Why Stealth Camping is a Bad Idea

Photo by Zane Selvans

Rogue reader Clair wrote to ask me:

Did you do anything to prepare for sleeping outside, in unknown places, possibly getting noticed by police or property owners, on your adventure?

This is euphemistically called “stealth camping,” (translation: trespassing) and it’s a bad idea.

Stealth camping has an air of legitimacy among backpackers, primitivists and adventurers, not because it’s legitimate (it’s mostly illegal) but because it makes you feel legit: a true daredevil who bows to no ruler.

Adventurer Benjamin O. Jenks captures it well:

I could care less what the naysayers think, I love it. Every night is an adventure. What you sacrifice in hours of sleep, you make up for in feeling a pure injection of freedom.

I was thrilled to add stealth camping to my arsenal of tricks when I began my Great Adventure. After doing it eight times, I removed it from said arsenal, hoping never to go back.

A Response to Clair

I don’t consider it unethical and I’m not biased against it. But the reality is it is an impractical way to go. Here’s why.

First there is a nervousness or stress that comes with sleeping somewhere you could be evicted from. Shelter should feel secure. But if a farmer or owner sees you in the evening they might confront you with weapons or call the authorities. It’s one thing to be told to leave before sunset, another to be awoken at 3 am and chased out, possibly without your gear. And certainly with nowhere else to go.

By skill or luck this never happened to me. I’ve either been undetected or ignored. But from the moment I set up camp to the moment I fall asleep, to every noise I hear at night—I am aware of the risk.

From a [primitivist] point of view, you would not set up your nest in a cave you know to be occupied by a bear or a cougar. Why would you set it up in hostile territory managed by humans with guns?

I find that the extra stress also means I feel less rested. And it means I cannot follow a natural sleep cycle. I have to be up early before someone could find me.

There is a second reason I don’t do it, which is much closer to my heart. Instead of stealth camping I simply knock on a door and ask. I explain my journey and say, “Do you know anyone in the area who will let me camp on their land tonight?”

If it’s close to sunset you can be more direct: “Do you mind if I camp in your yard?”

This is a very different experience.

When you stealth camp you set yourself up as a loner. When you ask permission, you make friends. They learn your story. Sometimes they offer you food or a place in their home. They give you water. You play with their kids, and maybe some aspect of what you’ve learned about adventure will inspire those kids one day.

Humans are social animals. We survive because we have a tribe and a network. When you camp out you have a choice to either refuse that social heritage and behave like a raccoon, or embrace our biggest strength and form relationships with new friends. A lot of travelers enthusiastically encourage stealth camping, but I view it as a poor survival choice. Life is much happier when you befriend your neighbors. Even your posture will change if you have to hide from people or lie to them.

When you knock on the door sometimes they will turn you down. Other times you make life-changing acquaintances. It’s worth it.

Respect to Benjamin, but I didn’t feel a pure injection of freedom, I felt my ass dragging and exhausted from sleep loss. Maybe it matters more when bicycling than when hitchhiking like he did. But the main reason people stealth camp is to save money—to travel for free—and that’s the irony:

You can travel for the same price of zero dollars just by making friends and asking the landowner.

If you’re planning an adventure, learn to talk to strangers. It will earn you hot showers, hot meals and maybe even hot sex. Three things that are better than buckshot and angry dogs.


31 thoughts on “Why Stealth Camping is a Bad Idea

  1. I do wish your trek south would take you through the mountains of North Carolina. We would let you stay on Mt. Matt for free for sure. It is beautiful and has a lot of awesome things already set up for camping.

  2. Well put… DREW…

    Thanks for adding YOUR perspective to the conversation.

    I agree… And disagree… in a way.

    I don’t picture being in “a nest near a bear or cougar” or around people with guns.

    I see a world fill of people, who would love me, if given a chance.

    I picture it being surrounded my family… except we just don’t know each other yet and I’m sleeping out under the stars.

    I see it as being around people. Many people don’t have guns and if anyone were to find me (never happened), I am confident I could make them my friend.

    My faith in humanity surrounds me, so when I lay my head in a yard or a field or a forest… I sleep soundly (85% of the time) and I feel the freedom and Nature of the world.

    It did take some practice though. :)


    When I started, I wanted to feel the stark loneliness of being “stealth” that settles on you. It hurt for awhile, right? Darkness descends and it feels like you are invisible. No one knows where you are… you are basically forgotten by the world. You could disappear and no one would notice… or that is how I felt.

    That feeling taught me much about Truth, God, and All.

    The bags under my eyes added to the Inner Journey I was on and were but a minor inconvenience.

    On the other hand, to deepen my response, when I was starting, in many cases, I was too scared to ask.

    I still love stealth camping and will do it.

    But next time I’m out, I’m going to give your suggestion a try too.

    I dig me some friends.

    And I love people.

    Thanks for sharing from your core, Drew. :)


    • Thanks for replying from your own core, Benjamin. (I just edited “Ben” above because as far as I can tell you prefer the full version.)

      I only felt the feeling you talk about in a few places. One was a pine woods on the edge of land owned by a hospital. On the other ide were warehouses. I knew no one would care there. The other time was on publicly owned land; same deal. I like the feeling of disappearing, just not the feeling of being unnecessarily at odds with the people around me.

      Something you said really hits home for me. The reality of being scared to ask. There is something deeply, truly daunting about this. It may be the hardest skill I’ve learned.

      Not only is it scary to walk up to a house and ask so much of a stranger, it also blows your cover. I worried that if I was turned down, they’d be keeping a close eye on me and stealth camping would no longer be an option. So far, the opposite has been the case. Asking has only led to good things, only ever improved my situation and never made it worse.

      I agree it’s possible to make strangers into friends, I just prefer to do it up front.

  3. Rua Lupa says:

    Pretty well along my view of things. People get surprised when I just come up and ask as they haven’t been approached before and being off guard tends to give you the advantage. I’ve gotten a lot of yeses that a few days later after thinking about it receive a no response, which gave me some wiggle room for a couple of days to see whats there – asking for wild harvesting reasons. I’ve rarely trespassed and those cases is more of letting my curiosity get the best of me on what’s around the bend rather than to stay a while. We don’t have the firearms defense mentality here so the most I’d get would be a hollering lecture or cops coming by. Which I did have the cops come by once but the person who called it in didn’t realize that I was on publicly owned land, which I was actually clearing trash from *shakes head*

      • Rua Lupa says:

        No conversation happened actually. I was spotted by someone who lived on that street who gave me a dirty look (the area is heavily abused by delinquent youth – hence me cleaning up) and then rushed off to their home and shortly there after I saw the cops go by. I had noticed they were looking for someone on the block and as I was in a bushy area it was hard to see me. So I just sat behind where I couldn’t be seen to observe what was going on and realized they were looking for me. And in the process they realized that it was public land and therefore a useless errand and left. Something that left me shaking my head.

        This sort of thing happened again later in the year when another neighbour had their dogs barking at me and they asked that I leave the area. And I informed them that I was on public land and didn’t have to leave. They brought their dogs away and later returned to apologize and ended up having a tour of their place and making friends. I haven’t returned since because before they moved to that house it was a quiet wooden haven that I enjoyed sitting in and caring for and now their dogs bark at anyone nearby, disturbing the peace I had sought in the first place.

        • Rua Lupa says:

          The funny things is that both times I was described as a man by those who’ve seen me at a distance (over hearing cop conversation). The woman from the second incident later laughed as her other neighbour told her that a guy was disturbing the dogs with my clothing description. So seeing that I was a young woman gave her a surprise (I dress for recreation which apparently is masculine?)

            • Rua Lupa says:

              I may have my hair down in photos, but since it is so long I usually have it done up in a tight bun and tucked through my ball cap so it doesn’t get caught up in things during outdoor excursions. I often enjoy the reactions people have when they see me with my hair down for the first time, since the bun makes it look like I don’t have as much as I actually do. I look forward to lopping it off this coming spring and donating what I’ve grown out from the shoulders down. Which is past my lower back – enough for the minimum donation and a bit extra (10 inches being the minimum). And then I could finally have my hair down on a more regular basis. I imagine I’ll feel light headed for a while. The last time I had any kind of cut was in 2009, so it’ll be fun to style it for once.

  4. Howdy Drew. Just want to thank you for this post and inspiring me to first check ahead with some landowners for a spot to sleep on my upcoming 5 day trek from Cape Point to Cape Town, South Africa.

    p.s. It be I, Starrzan!

  5. Keep in mind there are loads of free places to sleep that are safe. In the RVing world we call this ‘living off the cord’. Some of the best campgrounds in the world are free land from BLM, to National Forest, and public lands. They can be difficult to find sometimes, but many times they are worth the effort. One night we awoke to find our home on wheels surrounded by elk and mist rising from the grasses, another we were hit with first light popping out past the Grand Tetons! What an experience, and all free. We have a post on our site about living off the cord near Lake Tahoe, but out of respect i won’t hyperlink it here.
    Benjamin is an inspiration to us for sure, but some (or many) may call him crazy! Thanks for sharing your take on stealth camping, hopefully one day you’ll give public lands another chance.

  6. Pingback: Journey to the End, Day 3: Who Beside You? |   Rogue Priest

  7. Anthony Rizzo says:

    How many doors did you have to knock on every day to get a place to camp at night and is there anything wrong with just camping by the side of the road?

    • Hi Anthony. The only problem with camping by the side of the road is that “the side of the road” is owned by someone. If it’s private property the landowner might take offense; if it’s state property the law enforcement authorities might. It’s stealth camping all the same and I personally disliked it for all the reasons listed above.

      Notably, if you literally mean the side of the road then you’ll have headlights lighting up your tent/hammock at night (a bit annoying) and you’ll maximize the chance of being seen. So it’s almost worse than hiding deep in some forested land.

      Of course if you’re in state owned land or unused/unsold private land, it’s unlikely anyone will care. (Although in the US they still might.) The problem I had with that as a traveler is that I seldom know which land is which. If it’s a stretch of thick forest along the highway, I don’t know if it’s sitting abandoned and unused or if there’s a cabin 1/4 of a mile and an angry landowner with a shotgun.

      Most of the time you’ll get away just fine with stealth camping. I didn’t give it up because I ever actually got chased with dogs or arrested or shot at; I gave it up because the stress of wondering about those things ruined the experience for me. I just didn’t enjoy it.

      As far as knocking on doors, I learned it’s better to approach people who are out (in their yards, walking their dogs, standing in front of church) and ask them. It feels less intrusive, you make friends and someone will likely have an idea or offer. It depends largely on how trustworthy, friendly and clean you seem. If you look like a bum—which I often do after 70 miles of biking—it’s a lot harder.

      On my last bicycle leg, 700 miles through Louisiana and Texas, I avoided the whole issue by lining up a Couchsurfing host almost every single night. This took a bit of planning but it meant no time wasted on setting up camp and a lot less stress every evening.

      I hope this helps!

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