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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