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Stealth Camping and Pre-existing Campsites

A stealth campsite, off trail and out of sight
A stealth campsite, way off trail, and hard to detect from more than 20 yards

Stealth Camping has become a fashionable term in backpacking circles, but I’m convinced that most people don’t know what it means. They confuse it with pre-existing campsites, which are very different.

Stealth Campsites

Most stealth campsite have never been used before. They’re called stealth campsites because:

  • No one should be able to tell you’re there when you’re camping
  • No one should know you were ever there after you leave
  • You don’t tell anyone else about where they’re located, ever

People stealth camp for a variety of reasons ranging from fear of discovery to leave no trace do-gooders (like me) who want to limit their impact on wilderness ecosystems. Knowing how to find good stealth camps, the most durable surfaces to camp on, and how to hide any evidence of disturbance after you leave takes real effort and isn’t something many backpackers know how to do or even care about. (See Low-Impact Stealth Camping: Planning and Preparation for an overview of the skills and mind-set required.)

Camping on a pre-existing campsite - note lack of vegetation around tent
Camping on a pre-existing campsite – note lack of vegetation around tent

Pre-existing Campsites

Pre-existing campsites are established campsites that people have used before. For example, if someone asks you: where’s a good place to stealth camp at the bottom of such-and-such mountain, they’re probably asking you for the location of a pre-existing campsites. Some pre-existing campsites are designated campsites managed by the USFS or states, but most aren’t. Be sure to check the local backcountry camping rules, to determine whether a pre-existing campsite is legal to camp at (for example, White Mountain National Forest Backcountry Camping Rules).

Another pre-existing tent site - adjacent fire ring not shown
Another pre-existing tent site – adjacent fire ring not shown

I frequently camp in pre-existing, non-designated campsites because they already exist and in my opinion it’s better to camp on a surface that’s already been impacted by a human presence than to create a new campsite. I avoid pre-existing sites that are visible from the trail or close to water because I like to camp in more private spots and I don’t want present a obstacle to animals coming to water, but I will make an exception if it’s a choice between creating a new campsite or using an existing one. If I’m low on daylight, it’s the least impactful of the campsite options available.

Yet another pre-existing campsite
Yet another pre-existing campsite

You can tell you’re looking at a pre-exiting campsite because they’re often trampled, barren spots in a sea of vegetation, they might have a herd path leading to them, or a pre-existing fire ring. They’re often situated alongside bodies of water, trail junctions, and forest protection area boundaries.

How about you?

Do you camp at pre-existing camp sites or do you stick to designated campsites?

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36 comments

  1. Mostly, I use pre-existing campsites. Stealth camping is more about needing a place to stay, than a preplanned event for me.

    • Yeah, I try to do a little contingency planning every day before I set out to identify possible stealth camp site locations on the map if I need them, but I usually find pre-existing campsites in the Whites without having to look to far.

      On the Appalachian Trail, every nigth is at pre-existing campsite because the trail is so heavily used. You’d have to hike way off trail to find a pristine site to stealth in. It’s just easier to park at a site that’s already been used.

  2. If I hike with a group, I am usually stuck with a pre-existing site. If I hike alone, I prefer stealth sites which are all over the place if I hammock camp, my preferred style of shelter.

  3. My very first backpacking experience was stealth (pre-existing, but stealth sounded cooler) along the AT in the Shenandoahs. In the pouring rain. Talk about boot camp; it was just supposed to be a hike to introduce women to backpacking. I learned a whole lot that night. Since then, I have used shelters, camped at campgrounds, and played tetris on platforms. I think I prefer the pre-existing sites because you still feel like you are “roughing” it, but without all the work to find that ideal stealth site. And they tend to be quieter. And to think 18 months ago, I said I would never camp.

  4. Most of the bones left in my body that haven’t yet been broken are the lazy ones. They probably haven’t been broken because, being lazy, they were hanging around doing nothing while all the other ones were doing the hard work. Since my body is infested with such an effort avoiding internal structure, it generally searches for a previously used campsite in hopes that the outdoor philosophy will, in its case, change from “Leave No Trace” to “Requires No EMT”.

    When river camping in the canyons of the Big Bend region, at the appropriate time, any suitable campsite will be selected whether or not it has trace of previous use. Besides, periodic flooding obliberates evidence of past activity. Since 200 feet from a water source would be straight up, that part of good camping etiquitte is ignored. “Low impact” would not describe what would happen to me should I sleepwalk. My remaining unbroken bones refuse to follow along with the others in that type of adventure.

  5. In this state, it is illegal to setup a camp site on any DNR or publicly owned state land or state wildlife area. You must get a permit to camp on an existing designated camp site. The only place in WI that you are allowed to do stealth camping is about 5 hours north of where I live in the Nicolet national forest. When the opportunity comes along to hike that section of the Ice Age Trail I’ll for sure be doing stealth camping as it doesn’t require any permits or reservations in that area.

    • The “Live Free or Die” State has significantly fewer restrictions.

    • Shawn i have hike the ice age trail in the northen part a b d stealth camp for years the trick is stay way off any marked trail i try to go at least 100 to 150 yards off the trail i take a small alcohol stove make your meals away from you camp site and always take a different way back to your site no lights at night or fires they are sure to find you at night .

  6. These old, tired bones can’t comfortably make the distance from one designated campsite to the next. So I just take an overnight “nap” wherever I find myself. A hammock makes this very simple.

  7. I found an excellent pre-existing site last year in the WMNF that looked like it had at some point been a designated site or perhaps the site of an old shelter. I know the area we stayed in had some shelters in the past but I wasn’t able to find any info about where they were. In any case, trees had definitely been chopped down to make room. It was a beautiful site out of view of the trail and nearby water source. I loved it so much that I hope I can revisit it one of these days.

    So yeah, I stay at pre-existing sites when I can find them, which as you said, Philip, isn’t too difficult in the WMNF. If I’m backpacking by myself (which admittedly I’ve only done once) I stay in the designated tentsites b/c I am not entirely comfortable being alone in the woods at night. It’s really the human element that worries me rather than any animals that might come along, sadly. I feel that having a caretaker around keeps the riffraff away. I could be wrong.

    • I think you’re right. People complain about AMC managed sites that make you pay a fee, but they probably help keep the jerks away. I think the fee is warranted to maintan the sites and I am happy to pay it by the way.

      • Same here. It’s nice to know that you’ll have a flat space for your tent and a bear box at the end of the day. And those caretakers deserve a little compensation for spending the summer up in the mountains cleaning out privies.

  8. I must disagree with you on the meaning of the term – though I wish it meant what you thought it did. I first heard the term about 15 years ago – it refers primarily to camping in non-designated sites. The first times I heard it, it also refered to places where you shouldn’t camp due to regulations, laws, private property etc. and stealth was needed to avoid getting caught. Whether we go by the origins of the term or common usage, stealth refers to not being seen.

    To confirm, I looked for definitions and none of them refer to avoiding pre-existing sites – only to using non-designated sites, and generally to avoiding paying fees or risking sanctions.

    • I’m with David on this one. I hiked from coast to coast primarily following the American Discovery Trail from 2012-2013, and was often forced to stealth camp to avoid being ousted by private landowners or police. The ADT has hardly any shelters or designated campsites along all 5000+ miles, so anyone that attempts a thru-hike will likely have to stealth camp at some point when they’re not being hosted by the scores of kind people that live in the towns along the trail. I would always go to great lengths to obtain permission to use every site I chose, and always sought out public lands or parks if I could help it, but there were many times when that was impossible; perhaps at the end of the day the only landowner for miles around didn’t seem to be home, or maybe it wasn’t at all clear who was in ownership of the land or if there were any restrictions against sleeping there. It’s a major flaw of the American Discovery Trail at this point, and their website even states that one must “use creativity and make adjustments in finding places to camp” if one is hiking long-distance.
      Mountainous states like West Virginia and Colorado had plenty of great non-designated sites for stealth camping, because there was always enough vegetation or difference in elevation to stay hidden, which was of the essence when I was on private land. In states like Indiana and Kansas, however, stealth camping was close to impossible. I could be seen for miles around if I set up my tent, so I often had to sleep (and I use that term lightly) in spots like the ditches next to railroad tracks because they were the only place that provided any sort of cover from the road (the crops hadn’t started growing yet). Even then, I would have to wake up before the sun rose to pack up and start walking before anyone had the opportunity to notice me.

      This summer, I did a 1000 mile jaunt on the PCT, where I heard the term stealth camping used as Phillip is using it. I’ll refer to this type of camping as Leave-No-Trace camping to avoid confusion. On long wilderness trails like the PCT, Leave-No-Trace camping is of paramount importance, because of the heavy use from the thousands of thru, section, and day hikers that use it each year. That much foot traffic equates to a lot of catholes, tons of toothspaste, and abundant amount of pre-existing camp sites that all generally take away from the pristine environment we have come to witness. So in this context, collective understanding of Leave-No-Trace camping techniques and practices can make a huge positive impact on the environment immediately surrounding the trail. Yet, I believe that it is even more important to utilize the principles of Leave-No-Trace that Phillip has done so well to outline, when stealth camping in the manner that David and I have suggested. If you have to stealth camp to avoid being fined or being charged with trespassing, it is only fair that you should leave the site as close to its original state as possible.

  9. I usually start and finish at designated camp sites and stop at as many as I can along the way. However, I will scout out pre-existing campsites so I don’t end up camping on undisturbed land.

  10. It’s worth mentioning that bears and other critters are less of a problem at pre-existing sites than designated and almost never a problem at stealth sites. The animals learn patterns, just like we do so more use leads to more animals looking for a tasty snack.

  11. I just got back from 4 days, 3 nights in the Catskills. Every night was by NY state regulations, which means stealth camping, unless in a shelter.
    Since I use a hammock I stay away from shelters and camp in areas that would be very uncomfortable to ground camp. I also never build fires except in emergencies.

    Stealth camping can mean far less chance of having critter problems during the night, including the human kind.

    Bears, raccoon, porcupines, mice, drunk revelers, … all tend to gather at established campsites.

  12. What’s the difference between “existing” and “pre-existing” ?

    • My, you are compulsive. :-)
      Nothing, really.

      • At least hiking has been a good compulsion!

        In the national forests of my area (northern Arkansas & southern Missouri) there are few, if any, of what I would call designated campsites, i.e. built/maintained by the forest service and where people are specifically asked to camp.

        There are many established/existing sites – places commonly used for decades – and they are usually very poorly located, right next to the trail, maybe also right next to a creek, sometimes in the middle of some scenic area.

        When I’m with a group we generally use one of those established sites to avoid trampling the heck out of a virgin location, and because someone will inevitably piss and moan if they can’t have a camp fire.

        When I’m solo, I generally go off and do a LNT/stealth camp (always with no fire).

        Perhaps in your next article you could propose that people never build fires unless really, really needed for warmth. I bet that would draw some flaming responses.

      • No fires? Good luck with that.

  13. Q. What’s the difference between “unlawful” and “illegal”?

    A. One is a sick bird.

  14. Just came back from a two day Hiking and Fishing Trip in one of our National Forests, Talladega. I set up camp in the middle of either and old Logging Road or Fire Break I do not know which it was because it was so old. No Bulldozer tread evidence. It was a lucky find too, nearly Level, on the east side of a mountain and 300 feet below it was one of the Feeder streams to one of the 4 Lakes in the Forest. There are Beaver in the lake so I Purified my Water with a First Need Deluxe. The phrase I find amusing from the USFS is “Dispersed Camping” and it is allowed throughout this NF though their are a couple of Disignated Hunter Camps and two Shelters and a couple of Play to stay Campgrounds. but for the most part Camp where you like as long as it is 200 feet away from existing Trails, Roads, Developed Camp sites etc. and of course LNT. The Folks around here aren’t into Backpacking that much so the trails are lightly used and occasionally over grown. The traditional Blue Blaze was a problem at one point for the NF Surveyors had been at work and I saw fifteen different blazes within a 100×100 foot area. Took me a second or two to figure out what was going on or as in the term “What in Blue Blazes!” Now the areas where their are Dirt Roads where Dirt Bikes and Quads are approved are or is a totally different story. Majorily overused in my opinion but thankfully far enough away that they cannot be heard or seen while on the Trail. Wish we could share pictures here…Great trip. Since I did not make my goal, I probably will be back into that area again next week…

  15. I like to stick to designated sites to concentrate the impact, but I’ve done a bit of everything. I often backpack with my 7 and 5 year old, and they trample everything big time, so I feel even better about limiting that to designated, impacted sites. And I’m more than happy to pay to help keep things like that going. Also, it’s nice sometimes to have a bear box instead of hunting for an hour to find the perfect tree(s) to hang our bear bag!

  16. Dispersed camping in Natl. Forests, if you want to be close to a particular feature that doesn’t have an official campsite nearby – if I am wanting to be on the spot for some night photography without having to break camp. I am lazy. If a state park has an official “primitive” (pack-in, at least two miles from trailhead) campsite, I like those fine, as long as any neighboring tents are polite and the critters don’t come around. Fires? Obsolete – stoves with contained fuel (esbit, alcohol, isopropane) give peace of mind even if you are in a drought-free area. No wood bits popping and releasing sparks.

    • Fires for cooking are obsolete but it seems like most people still want to burn up all the down wood they can find just for entertainment. At many of the established/existing sites I’ve seen, the down wood has been stripped for several hundred feet around. The ecosystem suffers far beyond the fire ring.

  17. Camping,cooking, walking have been covered…what to pack for injuries? Any precautionary meds? Antibiotics? what about stealth fishing? I’m training now for a walk that will last years/hopefully. One foot of the grid already! Leaving in a few months.

  18. Well…..guess I fall in the “naive” category. I’ve been BEATING my brain out, planning a long distance hike, trying to time us to hit designated campsites. Since the official trail association states that camping is allowed only in designated sites, I did not even consider anything else. We wondered how people managed this; now I know! ROFL!!! Still…..I’ve hiked a lot of areas that you can go miles without coming across a good site to stealth camp, so…I don’t see how you can “plan” on a site being just where you want/need it! Guess I have a lot to learn yet! :)

    • You can’t really. You can guess by looking at a topo or just bring a shelter which is more adaptable to suboptimal terrain, like a hammock. They really do make campsite selection MUCH easier as long as you have trees. I’d also suggest contacting other SHT thru-hikers and asking how they addressed the issue.

    • That is the hole point look for a place about 75 yards off the trail. The hole point to stealth camping is leave no trace i have done this for years that the beauty of it find a place off the trail where you can not see it and nobody can see you. Try a hammock and a rain fly very easy to set up and take down. Have fun and stay safe.

  19. That is the beauty of stealth camping you find a place well off the trail where nobody can see you and please no fires people can smell and see the smoke from your camp fire. Stealth camping is leave no trace. Be safe and have fun out doors.

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