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Low Impact Stealth Camping: Planning and Preparation

Durable Surface free of Ground Vegetation
Durable Surface Free of Ground Vegetation

This is the first post in a series of articles about Low Impact Stealth Camping that explains how you can to minimize your impact on pristine wilderness sites so no one will know that you ever camped there. This takes a little planning to pull off, but it’s a set of skills and knowledge worth learning and teaching so others can enjoy the thrill of camping in the wilderness too. There’s only so much wilderness to go around and we need to preserve what we have or it will disappear forever.

Plan and Prepare

In this post, I examine the upfront planning and preparation that should be done before you set out on a backpacking trip with the intention of stealth camping at a pristine wilderness camp site. Consider this a checklist of annotated questions to run through when planning a trip like this.

As a practical example, I’ll illustrate the planning process with a loop hike in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. (Click TWICE for a larger version of the map.) I’ve never done this hike in its entirety or camped at the pristine sites indicated. In fact, I’m not sure there are decent sites to camp there at all – which is one of the key points of this scenario.

Willey-Field-Stealth-Loop

What are our goals and objectives on this trip?

This is 15.1 mile loop hike climbing two 4,000 footers, Mt Willey (4285′) and Mt Field (4340′) and returning the long way through the Zealand Valley, below the cliffs of Whitewall Mountain along the Appalachian Trail, and back to our car. Given the climbs and the distance, we hope to spend one night camping near the middle of our route. Ideally, we’d like to find a pristine campsite to stealth camp at, but if there aren’t any good sites available where we camp in a low impact way, we’ll keep going to the Alternate Campsite or to the Ethan Pond shelter/campsite. Continuing to Ethan Pond to camp is a 12.5 mile walk, but completely doable before sunset.

What are the local regulations for camping in this region?

  • Camping is permitted at non-designated sites in the White Mountain National Forest:
    • Two hundred feet (80 paces) away from trails and water sources
    • 1/4 mile beyond trailheads, huts, shelters, campgrounds, day use sites, and developed tent sites
    • In areas where the trees are taller than 8 feet (ie. below treeline)
    • But not in the following areas:
  • Camping is not permitted in Forest Protection Areas (FPA.) These are usually located at the top of mountains and close to designated campsites and shelters.
  • For a complete list of regulations, see Backcountry Camping Rules, White Mountain National Forest

How heavily used is the area by other people?

  • Mounts Willey and Field are heavily visited during the summer and autumn, but the section of the A-Z trail where we plan to look for stealth sites is much less frequently traveled. There’s a good chance that we’ll be the only people camping there at night and that we won’t disturb any other groups. The remainder of our route, after the junction of the A-Z Trail and the Ethan Pond Trail, is part of the Appalachian Trail and also heavily used.
Whitewall Mountain with Field And Wiley in Background
Whitewall Mountain with Field And Wiley in Background (north is left in photo)

Where and when will we look for pristine camping sites along our route?

  • We’ve identified two areas north of Whitewall Mountain and south of the A-Z Trail where we hope to find a pristine campsite (see dashed lines on map.) The contour lines in these areas suggest a gradual slope which may yield level camping. Of course we won’t know until we get there because the scale of the map is too big to show enough detail.
  • We know that the area north of the A-Z trail and below Mt Tom is wet and boggy due to intense beaver activity and unsuitable for camping. The same is true for the Wetland areas running along the Ethan Pond Trail, south of Whitewall Mountain.
  • The other areas on our route are either too steep or too close to trails and Forest Protection areas to camp.
  • We’ll get an early start so we can climb Willey and Field in the morning, and should arrive near the potential pristine sites by 1-2 pm. This will give us plenty of time to scout the area and see if there are any good low impact sites to camp at. Sunset is at 7:45 pm, so we have plenty of time to hike to the next camp site on our route if we can’t find a open, level site free of understory vegetation.

Are there water sources nearby?

  • There are two marked streams before and after the pristine site areas. To minimize foot traffic to and from the water sources, we will bring 2 x 3 liter platypus reservoirs with us and fill them before we head into the woods to start looking for sites. This will provide us with plenty of water for drinking and cooking until the following morning when we get back on the A-Z trail and can resupply again.
Delicate Sphagnum Moss on the Forest Floor
Delicate Sphagnum Moss on the Forest Floor

What kind of vegetation can we expect?

  • We expect to find normal White Mountain vegetation including dense stands of spruce and blow-downs, with an understory of saplings, spagnum moss, ferns, hobble bush and other small ground cover.
  • We expect that 5-10% of the area will be open and covered with forest duff that is suitable for camping on.

What has the weather been like recently and what kind of conditions are forecast?

  • There has been 1″ of rainfall in the past 5 days with clear and sunny conditions forecast for our hike. The ground should be fairly dry when we visit the pristine areas and our footprints will have less of an impact than if the ground were heavily saturated and soft.

How many people are coming?

  • There will be 2 people on this hike to minimize off-trail travel and camping impacts.
  • When we hike off-trail, we will walk along parallel routes to avoid creating a trail or the mere suggestion of one that others might follow. We will also avoid trampling on moss, ferns, flowers and other fragile ground cover because they take so long to recover (at least one year to resume normal growth.)

What kind of tents or shelters do we need to minimize vegetation trampling and compression?

  • We don’t want to bring multi-person tents with us because we’re unlikely to find a large enough space to set them up. Instead, we’ll use:
    • Hammocks, with canvas straps that won’t cut into tree-bark
    • Single person tents or tarps, because they can squeeze into the very small and narrow clearings in the forest that we are likely to find.
Alternate Campsite - Result of High Impact Stealth Camping
Alternate Campsite - Result of Stealth Camping in a High Use Area

Where will we camp if we can’t find a durable surface to sleep and cook?

  • If we can’t find level, vegetation free sites to sleep on cook on in the pristine areas, we’ll continue hiking on our route. Depending on how we feel, weather conditions, and the amount of remaining daylight, we’ll camp at the alternate site south of the Zealand Hut Forest Protection Area or the Ethan Pond Shelter and Campsite.
  • The Alternate Site is a hideous, highly impacted stealth site that was overused by many campers who saw that others had camped there previously.
  •  If we have enough daylight, we should continue hiking to the Ethan Pond shelter/campsite. If not, it’s better to stay put instead of illegally camping farther down the Ethan Pond trail, breaking local regulations, and potentially starting another impacted site in this high use area. There are just too many people hiking down this section of trail to risk it.

What is the fire danger level?

  • The fire danger level is moderate and expected to remain that way during our trip.
  • We will not be starting a campfire on this trip and will cook with an isobutane canister stove instead. Doing this removes the need to scour the forest looking for downed wood, trampling more vegetation and burying the post-fire ashes.

How will we dispose of our waste?

  • We will:
    • Dig catholes to bury feces at least 200 feet from our campsite and cooking area and pack out all used toilet paper
    • Pee on rocks and mineral soil to prevent animals from chewing on plants to get the salt in our urine
    • Eat or pack out any food scraps and trash
    • Use as little toothpaste as possible and broadcast (blow out and disperse) the water we rinse our mouths with
    • Minimize the use of soap and pour all waste water into catholes 200 feet from our campsite/kitchen
Digging a Cathole
Digging a Cathole

Where do we plan on cooking?

  • We will cook 200 feet away from our shelters at a separate clearing in the woods.
  • We will minimize the number of trips we take between our shelter site and the cooking area, walk along different routes between the two, and avoid stepping on fragile understory growth.

How will we protect our food from bears and other animals?

  • We will hang a bear bag 200 feet away from our cooking and sleeping area.

What impacts can we expect if we camp at a pristine camp site?

  • No matter how careful we are, we will have an impact on any pristine area we visit.
  • At a minimum, we are likely to move sticks and rocks from the areas we want to lay on the ground; we will compress the ground that we sit, lie, or walk on, and we will probably create noticeable paths between out cooking and shelter area.

How will we restore the site before we leave?

  • We’ll replace the sticks and rocks we removed from our sleeping areas and refluff the forest duff we slept or stepped on.
  • We’ll police the area to make sure we carry out any trash or human artifacts that would suggest someone had ever been there.
Stealthy Tarp
Stealthy Tarp

Recap

This planning process might seem rather detailed, but its not that much different from the planning process you’d go through for any backpacking trip. If anything, spelling out all of your assumptions is a good communication tool for involving your companions in the planning process and getting everyone on the same page.

However there are some low impact camping concepts introduced that you may not have been familiar with previously including:

  • Durable surfaces that are not harmed when you walk or lie on them
  • Avoiding high use areas so people don’t discover and reuse your stealth site
  • The separation of cooking and camping areas to avoid attracting animals
  • Trying not to create noticeable trails by walking along separate routes and avoiding extra back-and-forth trips
  • That it’s better to camp at a highly impacted site, than creating a new stealth site in a busy, high use area.

While camping unseen and in a manner that defies future discovery takes a little bit more planing and preparation to pull off, it opens up a whole new world of skills and enjoyment that few have experienced. Call it what you will: Leave No Trace, Pristine Site Camping, or Stealth. All I know is that’s its fun and sustainable.

Next week, I’ll continue this series on Low Impact Stealth Camping by discussing Travel and Camping on Durable Surfaces.

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13 comments

  1. If you are concerned about leaving behind globs of toothpaste you might consider brushing your teeth with a little water and baking soda. its all natural, could perhaps be lighter than your toothpaste and will still leave your mouth feeling clean and fresh. Most toothpastes contain baking soda now-a-days anyway. I would still reccomend dispersing your baking soda toothpaste as it is a salt and too much of it can harm plant life but I’m sure it would be less harmfull than the tubed toothpaste. Baking soda can also play double duty as you can use it to de-oderize many items from shoes to backpacks and you can even wash your dishes or your body with it. Its also cheaper than toothpaste. Give it a shot!

    • I often forget to brush my teeth anyway on these short trips.

    • Also, there are these little pads you can slide over your finger (I forget which brand makes them), or there are the Colgate Wisp’s that have a little freshening bead in them, but there is not a need to spit anything with either of these products (no flouride).

  2. Re: baking soda. Why spit at all? I just swallow it after brushing. No harm to the foliage. No trace at all. And it helps settle the stomach, which I find is sometimes effected w/spicy food.

  3. Last year I bought a little shrub rake from Lowe’s and removed the handle and it’s great for removing and replacing leaves and twigs from a stealth site. About half a pound though.

  4. Steve Whittingham

    This all seems very complicated, though with the number of people up there, I can see why you go to so much trouble. Very responsible. I walk in the Spanish Sierra Nevada (see youtube ‘Mulhacen in Winter’), and I can tell you, things are much simpler, though as I say, we do have fewer people..
    A really nice site, I’m enjoying reading your articles.
    Stay safe, and walk far.
    Steve Whittingham.

  5. White Mountain hiker since 1973. Whatever floats your boat. Overkill is my humble opinion. There’s plenty of room out there for every type of hiker and camper. I myself like a huge roaring fire at night. The restrictions are getting out of hand.

  6. I second that Bill. Refluffing the forest floor because you slept on it the night before?! Do you also breathe into a plastic bag to avoid contaminating the forest with dirty lowly human breath?

  7. White mountain camper since 1980. Stealth is the way to go. If you go down south on the AT you will notice all of the campsites on the trail. You don’t see that up here in the whites. I think it is polite to leave as little trace as possible.

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