Stealth camping on the side of the road is quite the experience. It can be challenging, against the rules, and sometimes a little bit stressful. The term never resonated with us until we decided to Walk Across the US, and now we want to share with you what it is, our five rules for stealth camping, where to find the best spots, and what to expect should you choose to embark on your own long walk.
Like with anything, the more you stealth camp the easier it will become and the more confident you will feel. After the first couple of times stealth camping, you’ll see sleeping opportunities all around you.
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What is Stealth Camping?
Finding a camping spot isn’t always easy. Unlike popular trails like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail, walking across the United States is predominately road walking. That means you are not technically allowed to set your tent up in most places. Unless you decide to snag a motel or someone offers up a patch of grass to lay your tent for the night, you might be stuck with finding your own place to sleep.
Stealth camping is typically trespassing, and essentially means camping stealthily to avoid being caught. It isn’t glamorous, and for us it is almost never a comfortable experience. That being said, if you want to walk across a country that doesn’t have designated trails, you WILL find yourself having to choose a stealth camping spot.
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5 Rules for Stealth Camping
At the end of the day, there will always be opportunities for stealth camping if you’re smart about it. Every situation will be different and pose different challenges, but these five rules will always stay the same. If you follow these rules and use a little bit of common sense you’ll become a stealth camping pro in no time.
- Set up after sunset
- Setting up your tent before the sun sets is asking for trouble. There will be times where you can set up your stuff before the sunsets, but when it comes to stealth camping you usually will want to wait until it starts to gets dark.
- Avoid using lights
- Headlamps, phone lights, or any other light are a big no no. Once it gets dark any slight bit of light will be extremely noticeable. Keep your lights off.
- Get away from the road
- For both your safety and to reduce the chance of getting seen, make sure to get as far as you can from the road. This will not always be possible, but do the best that you can.
- Cover or hide all of your gear
- Whether you are carrying a backpack or using a push cart to carry your gear, make sure it’s covered up. We used our aquaquest tarp every night to cover up our cart, and whenever possible we would hide our stuff behind a group of trees or bushes out of sight of the road.
- Wake up and pack up before the sun rises
- Similar to the first rule, try to get back out on the road before the sun rises. The less time you are exposed, the less chance you have of getting noticed.
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Finding the Best Stealth Spot
It can be a stressful feeling when it finally comes time to buckle down and find a camping spot for the night. At first it can be a bit overwhelming, but after your first couple times it will feel like you’ve been doing it your whole life. Choosing a spot will always be different. The decision will be based on where you are (rural or urban), what time of year it is (Is school out for the summer or is it a weekend?), and in some cases what state you are in (camping on private land in Texas was something we always tried to avoid).
Rural stealth camping will give you all kinds of opportunities for sleeping. We’ve slept under bridges (make sure there won’t be any flash floods), on the side of railroad tracks (try to put some sort of distance in between you and the tracks), next to cows, and on the other side of plenty of barbed wire fences. We find it much easier than finding camping near towns or cities, and we usually find it to be far less stressful as well. Here’s two questions to ask yourself before setting up your tent:
- Are there posted signs saying it’s private property?
- If there are no posted signs then we typically follow the philosophy of “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” Use your best judgement, but if there are no posted signs you’ll probably be alright with staying for a night.
- Does the area look active?
- If the land has fresh tire tracks, farm equipment, or animals frolicking around, you may want to try a new area. For us, it is never worth setting up shop if there is even a slight chance that the land is being regularly used.
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Town & City Camping
Once you come back into civilization you’ll face some different challenges, but don’t you worry! More people around does not mean that it will be harder to find sleeping, it just means you’re going to have to look in different places. Here’s a list of different places to consider that we have had luck with during our walk. We hardly ever call to ask for permission, but if that’s your style then give it a go.
- Churches are everywhere and we often felt very safe camping behind them. They tend to be one of our first choices for camping, and if you plan to walk through the South specifically, you’ll have a lot of options to choose from.
- Fire Departments
- More so in small towns, fire departments offer a good place to set up your tent. Once again, you can always call ahead to see if they are okay with you setting up your tent.
- During the school year this might not be as great of an option because of how much is going on, but come summer time you may be able to snag a nice piece of grass out near the football field or behind one of the buildings.
- Abandoned Buildings
- Anytime you see an abandoned building there’s an opportunity for a place to sleep. If you’re in a small town be on the lookout for these opportunities, but if you’re in a bigger city you may want to try for a different option unless you want neighbors.
- Small town parks can offer a nice place to bed down. A lot of the towns along the way have parks with canopy covers, baseball dugouts and fields, and flat grass fields.
- On several occasions we stayed behind businesses during their after hours. If you don’t mind the possibility of being recorded on video, businesses that don’t operate on the weekend or are closed for the remainder of the day can offer a quick nights rest. Thank you State Farm!
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What to expect
Stealth camping isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. In fact, it can be very stressful and at the end of long days you may dread doing it. That being said, it’s a part of the journey and you will need to utilize it throughout your travels. When it finally comes time to hop a fence for the first time and wait for the sun to go down, here’s what you can expect:
- It’s going to be stressful. If you’re like us and like to follow the rules, hopping a fence and hoping no one sees you isn’t exactly relaxing. The more times you do it, the more comfortable and confident you will become in choosing your spots to sleep.
- Stealth camping is typically illegal. There is always a chance that you could get caught, but remember the golden rule, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. If you are walking across the country then you are bound to break some rules.
- This isn’t your normal camping spot. Unlike showing up to a campground where you can sprawl out and set up your camp as soon as you get there, stealth camping usually means waiting to set up your tent, getting in your tent, and laying there until you fall asleep. It can be an uncomfortable situation.
We hope you found these few tidbits of information worth your while. Stealth camping is something not too many of us will ever have to experience. However, if you are one of the few who choose this lifestyle than we hope this helps in some way!
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