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Low Impact Stealth Camping

Stealth Camping in the White Mountains
Low Impact Stealth Camping at a Pristine Site in the White Mountains

If you’ve never heard the phrase “Stealth Camping.” I’m going to be posting a series of articles about how to do to it in a responsible, low impact manner over the new 3-4 weeks. I hope you’ll share your experiences, thoughts on the topic, and questions during that time.

Stealth Camping  – What is it?

Stealth Camping is when you camp off-trail at an unprepared, virgin campsite. It’s called “Stealth” because you want some privacy and don’t want people to know you are there, but people also do it to be closer to nature, because the shelters or campsites they planned to stay at are full, or because there aren’t any designated campsites in the wilderness areas they visit.

The term Stealth Camping has also been bastardized to include camping at unofficial campsites that are not pristine but have been used by others previously. These sites can be a good alternative for people who want to camp outside of designated campsites (be sure to check local regulations) because it doesn’t result in another impacted site (Leave No Trace guidelines should still be followed in order to prevent a higher level of impact.)

The Ethics of Stealth Camping

The practice of Stealth Camping is not without controversy. Many people argue that Stealth Camping is bad because it violates the principles of Leave No Trace. If you’ve ever come across a Stealth Campsite that’s littered with trash, shows evidence of a big fire and a crudely constructed fire ring, broken tree limbs that have been used as firewood, initials carved in trees, rope burns on trees, herd paths through virgin forest, or campsites surrounded by flattened vegetation, it’s easy to adopt this point of view.

Stripped Branches at a highly impacted site on the Appalachian Trail
Stripped Branches for firewood at a highly impacted site on the Appalachian Trail

Levels of Impact

Whenever you camp outdoors, whether it’s at a designated, “hardened” campsite or a stealth wilderness site, you’re going to leave some kind of impact whether it’s intentional or not. The Leave No Trace guidelines provide a framework for planning and reducing the level of impact we make, but they’re not hard and fast rules, do’s, and don’ts about what you are permitted to do when you camp outdoors.  Every campsite and situation is a little different and while the Leave No Trace guidelines can help you weigh different alternatives, you need to make your own decisions about the level of impact you’ll have on the local wildlife, vegetation, and other visitors you encounter.

Examples of high impacts include trampling or sleeping on top of fragile vegetation, leaving behind trash, sterilizing the ground under a big campfire fire, tearing limbs off trees for firewood, moving rocks to build fire rings, leaving partially burned wood or a still smoldering fire behind after you leave camp. I’ve come across plenty of highly impacted campsites like this, and they take a lot more time and effort to restore than they did to deface.

Super Low Impact Shelter - Caleb's Hammock
Super Low Impact Shelter – Caleb’s Hammock

On the flip side, many experienced campers and backpackers know how to perform very low impact Stealth Camping in accordance with the Leave No Trace guidelines. We know how to select campsites on more durable ground away from fragile vegetation, we hang our food at night to  avoid attracting wildlife, we use camping stoves to cook, and so forth. All of these habits are teachable skills that should be shown to less experienced campers and hikers  so they know how to practice low impact Stealth or regular camping.

Here are a few more examples, coupled with the Leave No Trace principles they bolster.

  1. Deciding to pack out used toilet paper on a trip and bringing two ziploc bags to store it in until it can be disposed of properly in town. LNT Principle: Plan Ahead and Prepare. 
  2. When bushwhacking to a pristine location, taking different routes in and out of the site so that they don’t create a visible path.  LNT Principle: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces.
  3. Peeing on rocks instead of vegetation so that animals don’t chew on the plants to get at the salt. LNT Principle: Dispose of Waste Properly.
  4. Not dragging logs or tree branches into a campsite to sit on: LNT Principle: Leave what you find. 
  5. Cooking with a camping stove. If a fire must be used, building it with a mound fire using mineral soil collected from a blow-down root ball. LNT Principle: Minimize use and impact of campfires. 
  6. Hanging a bear bag to prevent bears from becoming used to human food. LNT Principle: Respect Wildlife. 
  7. Using naturally colored shelters, such as grey, green, or brown, so other campers and hikers don’t see them. LNT Principle: Be Considerate of Other Visitors
This is just a sampling of low impact Leave No Trace hiking and camping techniques that I’ll be reviewing in the coming weeks. There are dozens more.
Low Impact Camping at a Lightly Impacted Site
Low Impact Camping at a Lightly Impacted Site

Educate Not Regulate

Past attempts to prevent high impact Stealth Camping by outlawing it haven’t worked. Take a hike down the Appalachian Trail and you’ll see many ugly, highly impacted campsites next to streams and along river banks despite regulations to the contrary.

I think the way to mitigate and eventually curtail such behavior is through education. Most campers mean well but don’t understand how fragile the sites they camp at are. Showing them what those impacts are and teaching them sustainable camping techniques is far more effective than passing unenforced regulations. Education like this is remarkably effective and I hope you’ll join me in getting the word out to your friends and families.

 

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17 comments

  1. Looking forward to the rest of this series, as I’m still fairly new to the backpacking/hiking community. I was shocked to see several high-impact “stealth” sites along the Franconia Ridge Trail last weekend that were literally 10ft-20ft from the trail!!

    • Seriously, like above treeline or in the krumholz? – whereabouts?

      • It was below treeline, in between Little Haystack and Liberty. I think there were two to three separate sites along the way. I was shocked to be honest…

      • Ok – that makes sense. I’ve seen such spots near the top of Liberty before. Terrible thing. It’s unfortunate but common to find such sites right outside forest protection areas – like the one directly adjacent at the liberty springs camp site. I suspect the summer caretaker will eradicate it when he/she moves in.

      • Agreat way to create an instant unofficial campsite, especially along the AT, is to put up a “No Camping Beyond This Sign” signs!

      • Yep – too true. Best to add “Beware of Guard Dogs.”

      • Just so everyone is crystal clear on this, you shouldn’t camp within 200 feet (70 steps) of a trail or water source. That’s both an LNT guideline and a WMNF regulation. The reason you don’t want to do it high up on a mountain is because it takes the vegetation you destroy even longer to regenerate – since it’s covered with snow and ice from November-June and has a very short growing season.

      • I fully agree that camping >200′ off-trail is an excellent LNT guideline, but as far as I can tell the White Mountain National Forest only applies this rule to specific trails, and within specific wilderness areas, which are listed in the WMNF “Backcountry Camping Rules” here:
        http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5363715.pdf
        I do not see the Franconia Ridge Tr. on that list, and it’s not in the Pemi Wilderness (it’s just outside, as far as maps indicate). So doesn’t that imply that it is legal to camp right off that trail? (Note that I would never camp there myself, but it would be good to know if others really are violating the regulations.)

      • Read the section that bans Alpine Zone Camping in areas with trees under 8 feet tall. That probably applies to the area in questions.

  2. Looking forward to the series, i have been looking for some articles on this. Is this from the LNT course you recently took?

  3. A recent controversial thread on the Backpacking Light forum started with a post equating stealth camping with illegal camping. I was amazed that most responders agreed (I wasn’t one of them). I’m really glad to see you taking my side of the issue–including, and especially, the LNT aspect! Thank you!

  4. For me, the LNT aspect is more important than the camp site and camp style. In my experience, people who follow the LNT creed will do so even when spending the night in an AT shelter. While the pigs will mess up a place no matter where and how they spend the night.

    As for LNT, I have started to take before-and-after photos of my camp sites, and am working on making the two pictures look the same. One thing that I’ve learned real quick is that I make most of my mess by walking to and fro around the site of my tent. Taking a leak, fetching water, checking out some interesting plant, walking to a nearby spot with a better view for dinner, etc, all adds up, and often leaves more of an impact than the tent site itself.

  5. Looking forward to the rest of this series!

    Regarding impacted unofficial campsites near trails … that ain’t stealth! It was clear to me that Phillip was talking about camping well out of sight of the trail but perhaps it needed to be emphasized a bit more.

  6. Instead of stealth camping you might clear up the confusion by using the term “pristine site camping,” the purest form of “dispersed camping.” Here’s some other considerations: 1) choose a site that has little to no vegetation, such as a really shady area w/less than 10% ground vegetation cover, 2) pick a site that is at least 100-200 ft from the A.T. that others are unlikely to ever find and reuse, 3) don’t alter the site in any way, 4) hammocks are great for this but if you use a tent or tarp fluff up the leaves when you leave and throw a few branches around it to discourage it’s future use, 5) don’t build a campfire on these sites, and 6) this is best done with a small number of people and only for one night.

    • I agree with you, but everyone uses the term stealth camping for that. Best address the issue head on – the series will cover all of these points and many many more, not just on the AT.

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