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.

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Adventure, Bicycling, The Great Adventure

What is a Day on the Road Like for a Bicyclist?

Long-distance biking is thrilling and tough. It’s an experience most people never have. We’ve all done road trips in a car with junk food and loud music. Bike trips are different. Here’s what it’s like.

The things you see in Minnesota.

Evening

Every evening I decide where I’ll sleep. This is the biggest unknown of the whole production. To some, this question mark alone would ruin the lifestyle. For me it’s a comfortable insecurity. (I’m often told I’m crazy, or sometimes that I’m brave. The truth is I built up toward it through years of lesser adventure.)

So where do I go? Most nights I camp out, and not in an official campground. Anywhere there is state land I can likely slink into the trees with no problem. If I need to use private land I don’t trespass, I ask permission. If you ask country people where you can camp out the answer is frequently their yard/empty field/back ten acres of woods.

A good camping site has the following features:

  • Close to the road and easy to wheel my bike over there (no ravine, steep hill, thick brush etc.)
  • It’s hard to see from the road
  • At least four stout trees to hang my hammock from, usually pine (can make do with just two if needed)
  • Not fenced, walled or marked as private property

I never worry about fires or water. I don’t do campfires—too much perceived risk in the absence of an official campsite, and who needs ’em anyway?—and I never need to draw water in the evening or morning. I carry three liters of drinkable water at all times and fill them up at every gas station.

When I find a spot I unpack essentials first: my hammock, blankets, and night time clothes. Mostly I hang the hammock haphazardly. If storms threaten the night I take great care hanging the hammock and its rain fly to shelter me from the wind.

Night clothes involve a warm sweater and long pants, even on hot summer nights. The hammock is breezy. I put my phone, flashlight and pepper spray in the hammock. They rest in little pockets hanging from the roof line, ready to grab.

Then I eat a cold meal of trail mix (if I’m hungry, often not). I drink about a liter of water and brush my teeth. I keep most of my gear stowed on my bike, but if I expect rain I lash my rain jacket over it and park it in the hammock’s lee. I enter my hammock by 10, sometimes read, and fall asleep by 11. This is very early for me.

One of my actual campsites.

Morning

I wake up late. I’ve tried every morning to be up at some early hour: the body rebels. Given what my body is adapting to, I let it have its way. I’m up by 9 or 10.

I feel great every morning. Thanks to the hammock there is no hint of stiffness, no neck or back pain, no “slept on it wrong.” With 6+ hours of daily cardio there’s no such thing as the Mondays. No matter what conditions I face in the day ahead, my body feels ready, thrilled, eager. It is ready to live as it should.

For breakfast I repeat the trail mix meal and drink another liter of water. I pee suspiciously less than 2 liters of water. I watch my pee intently. Your pee is your canary. Dark, amber colored pee (or worse, coffee) is a sign of under-hydration. My pee comes out a clear wheat color.

Departing takes nonsensically long. Two hours. Many days I don’t leave till noon. This time includes 30-40 minutes of yoga and abdominal workout. It also includes the painful process of re-packing everything for a day of travel on the Giant.

Glorious Days

The days soar by. There’s nothing regrettable about a day spent biking. Rain, heat wave: it doesn’t matter. To use all of your muscles and go faster than a horse; that is living.

Heat generally can’t be noticed. Once underway you have a continuous breeze. Stay hydrated and you’re fine (though be on guard for sunburn.) Rain is surprisingly fun to bike through. Biking in a storm is an exercise in warriorship. The mind must be totally aware of a dozen factors at once, the body poised to respond. Roads are slippery, traffic reckless, lightning still some distance off—how close? Will the wind bring it closer? Like fencing, it hits centers of the brain that most people never use.

Head winds can be hard. They’re the only source of true frustration in this lifestyle. (Which speaks to a failure on my part: why am I pushing on in a day when there are headwinds? Relax for a day and wait until the wind changes!)

People are funny on the Adventure. The biggest question they ask is how I pay for my trip. They ask this with a sneer, awaiting a trust fund story. I tell them I work three days a week everywhere I go and suddenly they are my friend. Oh, okay, he’s alright then—we don’t have to stone this guy. What the fuck? I do understand this grim little corner of human psychology, I just think it’s one of our worst.

I make sure I don’t smell. I’m very sensitive to this, I never want to be offensive to deal with. I’m amazed that my sweat “runs clean” as I like to say. I drench my clothes in sweat all day, then hang them up at night and put them back on in the morning. But somehow they never, ever smell bad (and neither do the pits). Sure I use deodorant, and swim or shower whenever I can. But the idea that my sweat doesn’t reek still feels like magic to me. A little miracle of extended adventure.

I may get rid of my extra undies, if this keeps up.

Do you have questions about life on the Adventure?

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The Great Adventure

Sleeping in the Sky

This is me waking up in my first ever camping hammock. I’ve tried it out every night for the past week. It’s a green nylon hammock enclosed with mosquito netting on the top. So basically I sleep in a giant cocoon. Above that (at top right here) is a rain fly.

It rocks.

There are some drawbacks. It can get cold in there if the night is cool. Blankets don’t help, at least not inside the cocoon. If you can hang a blanket snugly on the outside of the hammock it will help insulate. Learning how to rig up the blanket has been an interesting process. I had some rough nights, but I think I figured it out.

For those interested the brand is Hennessy Hammock. The design is ingenious and super comfortable. I hear that ENO makes some great ones too, but theirs clock in a little heavier and cost more.

The camping hammock is one of the best engineered pieces of equipment I’ve ever dealt with. I love climbing in and falling asleep in the breeze. It truly is sleeping in the sky.

This is a piece of equipment I never could have bought if it weren’t for my wonderful donors. Everyone who made a gift, whether $10 or $100, thank you. The entire hammock and rain fly fold up to 6×11″ and weigh less than 3 pounds. I compared this to my old one-man tent today. When stowed it’s nearly 3 feet long and weighs at least twice that much.

Thank you.

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Adventure, The Great Adventure, Travel

Gear Drive Results

Over the past few weeks I’ve run a gear drive here on Rogue Priest. The purpose of the drive was to raise half the cost needed to purchase high quality, reliable gear for the Great Adventure.

I’m pleased to announce that the Gear Drive was a complete success.

In the original post I set a goal of $860, and you exceeded that goal with a grand total of $870! The other half of the money needed for gear was saved by yours truly.

Over the past week, I’ve purchased the following items, thanks in part to all you wonderful donors:

  • 14″ Lenovo ThinkPad notebook computer
  • Hennessy Asym Classic camping hammock (this has built-in mosquito netting and a rain fly, outperforming most bivies and tents for comfort on the trail)
  • Apple iPhone 4, lightly used, for a bargain price of $265—and not tied to a service plan!
  • Sleeping bag rated to 25° (plenty for the places I’m going)
  • Circuit backpack from ÜLA, holds 69 liters and up to 35 pounds
  • Rope, carabiners, dry sack and other odds and ends

Of course there are still items to pick up—shoes and water bottles are high on the list—but the biggest items are taken care of and the rest are on the way. This week I’ll be setting up the hammock and testing it out.

None of this would have been possible without all the support that dozens of people showed throughout the gear drive, and my sincerest thanks go out to each and every one of you. And thanks also to everyone who tweets, shares, comments and follows along. You guys are an inspiration to me.

If you weren’t able to make a donation, there are plenty of ways to get involved. The best is to live the adventure yourself: travel freely, seek your legend and live for your ideals. If you can’t go yet or you already found your dream, help a traveler next time you have a chance.

The road is as cheerful as the people we meet.

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The Great Adventure

The Gear Drive So Far

We’re on week two of the gear drive. Time for an update!

Gear matters. That’s me in 2002!

Goal: $860

Raised so far: $810~

This is amazing progress. I want to give my most heartfelt thanks to everyone who’s donated. And of course if you haven’t yet, you still can! Your gift will help me secure the equipment needed to stay as safe and healthy as possible as I undertake the upcoming Great Adventure, crossing two continents under my own power.

But time is getting short. In less than a week I’ll be heading to the outfitter to make my final gear purchases. The money raised here, along with what I’ve personally saved toward gear, will determine what I can get.

Since we have only $50 to go to the goal, there’s no doubt that every donation counts. Even small gifts add up quickly, and there are still postcards and meditation sessions available for you big spenders.

Could your gift be the one that pushes us past the goal?

Thank you!

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The Great Adventure

Gear Drive

Here’s what scares me. It’s not just walking, biking and paddling farther than most people drive. It’s not the Mexico border, or the Amazon rainforest. It’s that it all starts so soon.

To calm myself I’ve been assembling my gear. Recently, readers asked what exactly I’m taking with me. What do you take to walk 8,000 miles?

The answer isn’t clear. I’ve priced everything out and I have a wishlist, but the money I’ve saved isn’t nearly enough. There are going to be some tough choices. 

Photo by Beth Varro.

Here’s the dream team:

Shelter

$160 — OR Highland Bivy (like a tent coffin!)

$180 — 20°F rated sleeping bag, for my toesies.

Backpacking

$225 — ULA Camino Backpack (designed by backpackers, for backpackers)

$30 — A week of food… very, very simple food.

Gear

$60 — “MyBottle” water bottle with purifying straw. Sexy.

$45 — Gerber super lightweight hatchet. Perfect for home defense.

$140 — Shoes! Final pick TBA (so suspenseful)

$27 — Outdoor Research Drysack. Keeps my laptop dry even underwater!

$7 — Every adventurer carries rope.

Electronics

$300 — Smartphone. (My first ever, don’t tell anyone.)

$485 — Smaller, lighter notebook computer. So’s you can still read these blog posts.

Grand total: $1659

I’ve saved $800 toward this, leaving $859 to go. And I’d like to ask you to help.

One of the things I’ve learned over and over from experienced backpackers is that gear is vital. The right equipment keeps you safe from injury and lets you tough out the worst conditions.

To help secure that gear before I go, I’ve started a donation page. Many of you have asked how you can help as I get ready to leave, and if you’re able, this is the best way. Please click below and help support the Great Adventure.

Any size gift helps. You can sponsor a specific piece of gear, or give your lucky number. The amount is totally up to you.

As a special incentive…

  • If you give $50 or more I will send you handwritten postcards from three cities: Minneapolis, St. Louis and New Orleans.
  • If you give $100 or more I’ll give you a private meditation lesson. We can do the session “in person” by Skype. And you get the postcards, too!

Gifts of any amount are truly appreciated, and will help me out every day. Thank you!

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Adventure Prep, Uncategorized

Upright Sleeping

When my sister lived in a Buddhist retreat, she slept in a box.

This is not the first thing that comes up when you ask what it’s like to spend three years completely sealed in retreat. And as she prepares to take her ordination as a nun, it may not seem like the most important part of her spiritual practice. But for 1600 nights in a row, if she was closing her eyes to sleep it was in the confines of about a 3′ × 3′ wooden container.

It’s not as awful as it sounds. The point is, essentially, that lamas should sleep sitting upright. This way they can do their nighttime practices in the full lotus posture, sleep right where they are in front of their shrine, and wake up to start their morning practices without moving. Or something like that.

But to most people it has no appeal. It’s hard to explain that the box is not a crate, or that it’s quite comfy when you add some pillows. Before her retreat I suggested she stop mentioning this particular part of what she’d be doing. It makes it sound like some kind of extremist cult.

The past few weeks she’s regaled me with the reality of sleeping upright. Several times I watched her peacefully drift off to sleep in improbable places. Her back is board-straight and she moves with grace. It has its perks.

Then I began to think about the applications of sitting upright to sleep. I have no intention of sleeping in a box, but I have this whole “walk 7,000 miles” thing. It will include a lot of nights sleeping outside—probably about 1600—and I’m open to anything to make that easier. Some of the benefits of upright sleep:

  • You stay warmer. The vertical orientation of your body is far more efficient heat-wise.
  • Warmer means no sleeping bag. One lap blanket is all you need. When backpacking, that means less weight to carry.
  • If you wear glasses you can leave them on while you sleep, handy if you need to get up suddenly at night.
  • You can use a smaller tarp over your head and less mosquito netting (no tents here).
  • You develop strong neck and back muscles.
  • When you wake up you’re completely lucid, never groggy. Zangmo and I can’t figure out why this works, but it does.

These are powerful incentives to see if I can acclimate myself to upright sleeping before I start the Adventure. But that’s just two months away! Challenge accepted.

My kid sister Zangmo in her box.

Zangmo told me that when she first started it took her about three months to get used to, and involved intolerable pain and stiffness. However, we don’t believe that’s necessary to learn to do it right: she resisted upright sleeping for a long time, and had bad posture at first.

So I set a piece of particle board against one wall of my room, culled through the pillows and cushions in the house, and fanaggled about an hour of consultation with my resident lama. I’m going to try it for myself.

How will it go? Expect an update next week. In the meantime, has anyone else ever slept sitting up (by choice or out of necessity)? Do you have any other unusual sleep methods that might be of use to fellow adventurers? Hit the comments and speak up. I’d love to learn.

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Adventure Prep, The Great Adventure

Shoe Comparison: Off Road

Today I continue my shoe comparison. With the road test complete the next step was the Off-Road Course.

The course runs roughly as follows: an estimated half mile walk on level asphalt road, then another estimated half mile down a trail through the woods. The trail is poorly maintained, covered with bare dirt or grass and weeds. It’s uneven. From there I strike off into completely trackless woods. After perhaps a quarter mile I have to ascend a steep wooded hill, still with no trail. I estimate an elevation of 300 feet and a slope of up to 60 degrees.

Atop the hill I walk along a wooded ridge for unknown distance and down a gentler slope on the other side. Finally I meet up with a grassy foot trail which takes me down to a paved country road. The country road is the halfway point; then I turn around and do the whole thing in reverse.

The distances here are only approximate, but since the course was the same both times that doesn’t matter.

It’s important to note that while off road I estimated my heading by the sun. This means I may not have taken the same course step-by-step but the terrain was identical. In fact, the second time through I encountered visual landmarks just before coming back down the 300-foot slope. That means I took the exact same route down the hardest slope both times, which will be important when interpreting the results below.

As with the Road Course, I did the two tests a number of days apart, at roughly the same time of day, with the same warm ups and exercises beforehand and the same cool-down period afterward.

Road Results: Steve Madden Canvas

Conditions: Partly cloudy, warm, strong breeze

Distance: Unknown

Time: 1 hr 45 min

This walk was a joy. I found that my flat, thin canvas shoes were extremely comfortable even on uneven terrain and out in the thick brush and leaves. The walk was invigorating and it was nice to be off-road again. Climbing the steep slopes was serious cardio, but relatively easy. I never scrambled or felt I would fall. Unlike the Road Course, the lack of padding was no issue on the softer ground and there was no soreness or callous-building this time around.

I encountered, to my surprise, zero ankle stiffness all that evening or the next morning. I found these results shocking.

Road Results: Chuck Taylor All Stars

Conditions: Cloudy, warm, moderate breeze

Distance: Unknown

Time: 1 hr 45 min

Walking was a chore. By the time I made the top of the ridge I was sick of the walk and only kept going for the sake of the experiment.

Walking on uneven ground with these shoes is not easy. I didn’t consciously notice this at first, I just noticed how tiring it was. I don’t think it was only the weight, but also the angle they force my feet to meet the ground at. With a padded ankle and arch support my feet have no option to splay, tilt or follow the angle of the ground beneath them. This makes off-roading in athletic shoes quite energy-intensive.

The comfort issues didn’t stop there. I started to get twigs and other junk in my shoes. I don’t remember this happening in the Maddens. Looking at the shape of the shoe, as a lace-up it has a long slot on either side of the tongue. I suppose that branches can easily catch in it, break off and work their way in. Since they are tied it’s hard to take them off and remove such garbage. This is not a fault of the padded soles, but it means that if a padded athletic shoe turns out to be a good overall choice then I’ll need to seek out a slip-on, lace-free version for hiking.

In a similar vein, the laces came untied no less than five times during the test, presumably from snagging so often.

The most significant problem occurred on slopes. Climbing the slope was much harder in these shoes. I had to take several segments on all fours to scramble up. Grabbing trees and other handholds became much more important. On the way back down, despite taking the exact same route, my feet went out from under me and I fell on my butt four different times.

I experienced mild to moderate ankle stiffness that evening and the next morning, similar to the results from the Road Test.

Interpretation

The first conclusion to draw from this comparison is that if I plan to go off-road on my hike I can’t mess around with laces.

The second conclusion is that padded athletic shoes perform like crap on slopes and uneven ground. My first thought with the sliding and falling on the slope was to check the treads of both shoes. Maybe I was just getting better traction with the Maddens?

No way. The Maddens, made with minimum treads in the first place, have been worn almost totally smooth. The Chucks however have thick, deep treads and they’re practically pristine. If the game was “who can stop quickest on ice or sand,” Chuck would win every time.

So we can’t blame traction for the problems on the hill. Given such near-identical conditions, I have to blame the different design of the shoe. When your feet are already coming down on an angle they don’t need an additional angle built into their heels. And when they need to turn, stretch and twist to accommodate rough terrain, they shouldn’t be forced into a set position for every step.  In these conditions the padded shoes work against the body.

Remember though that on the level Road Course the padded shoes actually performed slightly better. Although there’s still one test to go I already find myself asking: is there any way to reconcile the pros and cons of both designs into a single shoe?

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