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.

Spotlight, Travel

Interview with Nate Damm

Nate Damm walked across the United States.

met Nate mid-walk at the World Domination Summit. I felt an instant kindred. Since then I’ve followed his walk closely and chatted with him on Radio Enso. I’ve noticed that people ask him the same questions over and over: what shoes did you wear? Were you scared?

If you’d like to see those answers they’re covered in his Guide to Walking Across America. But I wanted to ask him something a little deeper—questions that most interviewers don’t usually get around to.

And Nate, being Nate, agreed.

So Rogue Priest readers, I present to you my interview with Nate Damm.

Nate Damm walked across America.

You talk about the value of being alone on your journey. What is the solitude like? What would you think about?

The solitude was incredible. It definitely took some getting used to but after a while I really grew to love it. Some of my favorite memories from the walk were moments where I was completely alone. Sometimes I’d go a few days without really seeing another human being (outside of their vehicle, of course). I would think about all kinds of things, but most often I would just pay attention to what was around me. There’s a lot to see when you’re walking because you’re going so slow. Animals, trees, mountains, clouds, interesting stuff on the side of the road. I just did my best to soak it all in.

What did you learn about yourself on this journey?

I learned that I am capable of handling pretty much any situation. I gained a lot of confidence in this area. I learned that things generally seem to work out if you keep a positive outlook and try to find some sort of humor in bad situations. For example, I’d walk into a city after dark and have absolutely nowhere to sleep. This stressed me out tremendously at the beginning of the walk, but by the end it was just a normal thing. I’d take a few breaths and try to see it as a new adventure. This may have resulted in uncomfortable nights underneath bridges or hiding out in a small patch of bushes, but it was all part of the fun.

You must have met a lot of people. Who are some of the ones who stand out in your mind?

One guy I spent a few days with was a Vietnam veteran who was a POW and escaped from a prison camp. He told me how he did it by burying himself underground in the jungle during the day and moving at night. His combat stories were absolutely incredible. After the war he returned to the U.S. and lived in his pickup truck for 9 years, putting 650,000 miles on his old Ford and traveling anywhere he pleased. He had beaten cancer twice, along with being in a coma for 2 months then waking up. He was an amazing guy who just really enjoyed being alive.

I spent some time with a middle aged couple in Ohio. They were homeless and living at a campground for free in exchange for a bit of work around the grounds (mowing lawns, trash removal, etc.) They lived in an old camper but had no way to haul it around. They cooked me an amazing meal and made me feel at home. They went well beyond their means to help me out. This was a recurring theme. Even people who had almost nothing would show me kindness in any way they could. They were genuine and kind people who were trying as hard as they could to stay afloat. I’ve since heard from them and they both managed to find steady work and bought a little house. They’re doing great.

I could tell a million stories here!

Do you stay in touch with any of them? Did anyone you met along the way start to follow your blog, that you know of?

I stay in touch with a lot of people I met along the way. I still find it amazing how close of a bond you can create with people in the span of one or two days. Many of them would follow my trip online after the point where I met them and keep in touch. I feel like I have an extended family all the way across the country now.

Did walking across America give you any insight into what you want to do with the next part of your life?

Not too much, actually. It did give me insight into how I want to approach each moment though. Walking is actually quite boring and repetitive, so you have to get good at finding something to enjoy at all times. This has definitely carried over into my life post-walk. I wouldn’t say that I know what I want to do, but I do know how I want to approach each day. I hope that makes sense.

After having seen so many different places and their people, do you have any great observations about humanity?

Definitely. I think that most people are good.

One observation I made that I found interesting was that in face-to-face interactions I only had maybe 2 or 3 negative experiences with people on the entire trip. On the other hand, I had that many each day (at least) with people while they were driving.

Out of all the lessons and changes you had on your walk, do you feel that you could have learned the same things any other way? Can people who don’t travel, or don’t walk, have the same kinds of experiences?

For me personally, I’d say no. Walking really saved me. I was in a pretty bad place before the trip. My life was, for lack of a better term, in shambles. The simplicity and solitude forced me to work through many of my issues, as there was no other alternative. I couldn’t ignore them any longer.

I suppose people could learn more about themselves and gain major life insights at home, but travel and being in uncomfortable situations can really speed up the process.

In your guide you mention “stealth camping.” Can you tell us how this works and what the right way is to do it?

The basic idea behind stealth camping is to camp somewhere you technically are not supposed to without getting caught. There really isn’t a best way to do it, I don’t think, because every situation varies. The only way to get better at stealth camping is to do it all the time.

I will say that things become very different after dark. Use darkness to your advantage. Places that seem impossible to camp without detection during daylight hours are often completely fine once it gets dark outside. This makes your ‘getting your camp set up at night’ skills very valuable. I actually practiced this a lot. As long as you can get up and be gone before daylight you’re usually all set. It is a rush camping in a location that if you were caught you would likely be arrested. I enjoyed it a lot. Maybe a little too much :)

If you could have had a travel partner walking with you, would you have wanted that?

For an extended period of time, no. I had one friend join me for a weekend, which was great, and another join me for a week. Those were both wonderful experiences. They were great people with open minds and good attitudes.

With that being said, I really valued my alone time on the trip as I knew I may never experience so much of it again once it was over. I enjoyed moving at my own pace.

Nate has a home base that’s worth snooping around and kept a chronicle of his walk that makes for great reading. Do you have questions for Nate? Hit the comments and fire away!