"Stealth camping" is sleeping in a location that is not a designated campsite, in secret. Other names for the practice include "wild camping", "guerrilla camping", "ninja camping", "free camping", or "dispersed camping". As the name implies, when you stealth camp you do so quietly, in a secluded and protected location.
When done correctly, stealth camping does not equate with trespass, though laws in the United States can vary a great deal from state to state, county to county, and even at local levels. Before attempting to stealth camp, you should research what the laws are in the locales you are traveling through. If you're in doubt about the legality of stealth camping in a given locale, do not do it.
Stealth camping is common practice among hikers, kayakers, motorcyclists, and touring bicyclists, and to some extent, car campers and RV'ers, who refer to the practice as "boondocking".
Why Stealth Camp?
There are a number of reasons that you may want to, or need to, stealth camp:
- There may be no non-stealth camping options available in the area you're passing through. Perhaps the towns are too small or the region too thinly populated to support commercial, state, or municipal campgrounds. If that's the case, there are likely to be no commercial lodging options, such as motels, either.
- You may be trying to save money. Commercial options can be quite expensive, especially considering that bicycle tours can last for weeks, months, or years. Economizing on sleeping quarters is an often-used tactic to make your money last longer. And if all you're doing is sleeping, and you already carry your portable home (your tent) with you, do high-cost lodging options really provide anything you need?
- You may be caught far from a town. In much of the western parts of the country, towns can be great distances apart, and you may not be able to make the journey between them in one day. Or unforeseen circumstances, such as mechanical problems, inclement weather, or injury may prevent you from covering as much distance as you planned. If such situations, your options are very limited.
- You may be tired of commercial or state campgrounds, many of which attract loud or rowdy crowds, particularly on weekends and holidays. You may simply prefer the solitude and peace of sleeping alone.
- You may prefer sleeping as close to nature as possible, rather than in the sanitized and artificial conditions of a typical campground.
- Stealth camping can be faster and more efficient than researching, finding, and dealing with typical campgrounds.
What Are The Dangers of Stealth Camping?
As easy, fun, and safe as stealth camping can be, it's not without its hazards:
- No one knows exactly where you are, so if you suffer an injury or medical emergency, there may be no quick way to summon help (since many prime stealth camping sites are quite remote, cell phone coverage many be spotty or non-existent).
- Since you're likely in a remote locations, you may encounter wildlife, and some of that wildlife may be dangerous.
- Depending on the season, weather can change quickly. If you're not prepared, or underestimate the risk, cold, heat, rain, or snow (or tornadoes!) can be quite dangerous.
- There will likely be no nearby sources of food or potable water, so be sure to pack enough of each to last you through your stay.
- If you make a poor site choice, or are extremely unlucky, your presence may be detected, and attract unwanted attention.
- If you miscalculate, you may inadvertently trespass, and the property owner may confront you, or call law enforcement. If this happens, admit your mistake, apologize, and move on.
Stealth Camping Best Practices
- The ethos of stealth camping is "leave no trace". A person, coming on your campsite after you've left, should find nothing except perhaps some flattened grass. Do not litter.
- Choose a site as near to sunset as possible. The longer your campsite is exposed to daylight, the more chance there is for someone to see you or stumble upon your camp.
- If possible, choose a site above any nearby roads, rather than in low-lying land.
- Do not trespass. If a possible site is fenced or gated, then assume it's private property. If there are "No Trespassing" signs, respect them. Purple paint on fenceposts or trees is another common (and legal) way to mark private land.
- Always respect private property rights. Many people are quite militant about defending these rights.
- Do not camp next to a road, no matter how isolated it seems. Minimum-maintenance roads are often "party spots" for local folk.
- If you see any signs of recent activity – litter, fire rings, tire tracks, shell casings – select another site.
- Do not make a fire. The smoke or light may give you away. Worse, you may start a grass or forest fire, especially in times of drought.
- Be careful of cooking any food on a stove. The smells can give you away, or attract hungry wildlife.
- Consider muted colors for your tent and gear – browns, greens, and grays blend in to natural settings better than yellows, oranges, reds, and blues.
- Cover your bicycle's reflectors, including reflective portions of your panniers and other gear.
- Be careful of using flashlights at night. If a light is necessary, consider using a red, rather than white, light. A red light does not disturb your night vision as much as a white light, and can be less conspicuous to any possible onlookers.
- Don't disturb or damage any property, livestock or field crops you encounter.
- Don't enter any structures, even if they appear abandoned.
- Don't camp in low-lying areas that may be prone to flooding.
- Don't camp within site or sound of any houses, even if they appear deserted. Rural houses or farms are often protected by free-running dogs.
- Don't leave food out at night; it can attract wildlife or scavengers.
- Obviously, there are no restroom facilities when stealth camping in a remote location ... "leave no trace" applies to this as well.
- Break camp as early in the morning as you can. Don't even eat or prepare a hot drink. Just move along, and stop somewhere down the road for your breakfast.
- Be careful of stealth camping if you are carrying any weapons (perhaps even a knife); this may leave you open to serious charges if discovered.
- Do not stealth camp during hunting seasons! However, if you find yourself in the woods at dawn with gunshots nearby, it might be best to just hang tight for a couple hours, if you're reasonably well-hidden. Early morning is an active time for wildlife, and hunters, but activity usually tails off by mid-morning. When you do move, wear bright colors, preferably "hunter orange" to avoid being mistaken for wildlife.
Alternatives To Stealth Camping
If there are houses along your route, you may want to consider asking permission. Be extremely polite and courteous, and it helps not to look like a hobo. Be careful of using the word "camp", as that may denote longer-term occupation to some people. Ask if you can "rest", "stop over", "spend the night", or "pitch a tent", and emphasize that you won't cause any damage, and will be gone soon after sunrise. Perhaps offer to rent a few square yards in an out-of-the-way place.
If you ask permission, and are denied, apologize for disturbing them, and move on down the road, preferably as far away as you get.
If there are any free non-stealth campsites in the area (community parks, wildlife areas, state fishing lakes, etc.), they might be a less stressful choice than stealth camping. (See list of Free Campsites in Kansas.)
Another alternative is to ask the local law enforcement or fire department. They may be able to advise you of local camping options, and will certainly be able to answer questions about the legality of stealth camping in their area. Emphasize that you're only looking for a safe place to pitch a tent during the night, and will be gone by early morning.
Finally, rural cemeteries can be another option for a place to spend the night (as long as you're not too superstitious).
See other Free Bicycle Camping Options in Kansas.
What is Trespass?
According to uslegal.com:
Trespassing is a legal term that can refer to a wide variety of offenses against a person or against property. Trespassing as it relates to real estate law means entering onto land without consent of the landowner. There are both criminal and civil trespass laws. Criminal trespass law is enforced by police, sheriffs, or park rangers. Civil trespass requires that the landowner initiate a private enforcement action in court to collect any damages for which the trespasser may be responsible, regardless of whether a crime has been committed. Traditionally, for either type of trespass, some level of intent is required. Thus, the trespasser must not simply unwittingly traverse another's land but must knowingly go onto the property without permission. Knowledge may be inferred when the owner tells the trespasser not to go on the land, when the land is fenced, or when a "no trespassing" sign in posted. A trespasser would probably not be prosecuted if the land was open, the trespasser's conduct did not substantially interfere with the owner's use of the property, and the trespasser left immediately on request.
Kansas law defines criminal trespass as:
21-5808 – Criminal trespass is entering or remaining upon or in any Land, nonnavigable body of water, structure, vehicle, aircraft or watercraft by a person who knows such person is not authorized or privileged to do so, and such person enters or remains therein in defiance of an order not to enter or to leave such premises or property personally communicated to such person by the owner thereof or other authorized person; such premises or property are posted in a manner reasonably likely to come to the attention of intruders, or are locked or fenced or otherwise enclosed, or shut or secured against passage or entry.
For additional information refer to the complete Kansas statutes at kslegislature.org.
Stealth Camping Links
Learn more about stealth camping techniques, tips, and risks, via the following web sites:
- The Secrets Of Stealth Camping and 50 Stealth Camping Super Tips from BicycleTouringPro.com
- Stealth Camping by Allan E. Stokell
Note: This information is not intended to provide any type of legal advice. If you have any questions about the law, contact an attorney or a law enforcement officer.