Stealth Camping

I like camping far away from established campsites. If I’m hiking solo on a managed trail, I usually avoid shelters and lean-tos unless I want company. If I’m bushwacking there is usually no other option. When I get tired or the light is fading, I make sure my water supply is topped of and I find a good site to make camp.

Stealth camping is the term given to camping at an unestablished wilderness site. It also can have a second meaning, which is camping in a site without the permission of an landowner. A lot of backpackers do it, but it’s also very popular with long distance bicyclists. In the United Kingdom, it’s called Wild Camping and is the subject of an active political campaign to make it legal to camp on mountains, moors, and national parks without obtaining owner permission in advance.

Besides solitude, stealth camping is thought to reduce the chances of bear encounters at night. Bears tend to frequent established campsites where there are campers and food bags. Why forage, when you can just drive to McDonald’s? It therefore makes sense that you will be less likely to be found by a bear if he’s down at the pub with the regular crowd.

One of the arts of stealth camping is site selection. You need to be able to detect signs of bear activity or interest and avoid them. Stay away from berry patches, stream banks littered with salmon carcasses, bear scat, or bug ridden logs that have been recently clawed. You should also avoid game trails if you want to avoid deer and other night time commuters. This takes a little practice and close observation, but that’s part of the fun.

If bears are a primary concern you should also consider cooking in a different spot from where you are sleeping. I like to cook my big evening meal on the trail about an hour before I stop for the night to lessen the smell of food in camp. You should also camp 200 ft away from streams and other water sources where animals are likely to drink at night. If there is any doubt about this you can carefully examine the banks for paw prints or claw marks during the day to see if there is any sign of animal activity.

Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo

With stealth camping, you should try to stick to the principles of Leave No Trace and Carry In-Carry Out camping. For example, if you are sleeping on the ground, you will compress the leaves and undergrowth beneath you in an abnormal manner. Consider fluffing up this area when you break camp. Obviously, you should pack out all of your garbage and you should consider taking your used TP to keep the area pristine. If you wash or brush your teeth, pour your grey water down a hole and avoid making an open fire.

If you are trying to avoid other people, it helps to have a stealthy shelter like a hammock which can be set up over terrain or ground cover that is unsuitable for tent. Hammocks also have a very low impact on the forest floor. The color of your shelter should blend in well with your surroundings. It’s hard to be subtle if your tent is blaze orange or red. To further prevent detection, don’t use unshielded lights.

Finally, there is the question of legality. I avoid sites that have no trespassing signs on them or ones that have obviously had recent human activity like tree harvesting. If you break camp early in the morning and are promptly on your way, your chances of detection will be minimal.

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28 Responses to Stealth Camping

  1. frank_in_oz February 27, 2008 at 3:40 pm #

    Hi Philip,

    First of all, congratulations on a great site. I really enjoyed having a look around here and checking out what you are up to. Love the simplicity of the design and the layout, well done.

    Enjoyed this post on stealth camping. It is a bit different in Australia where we tend to walk in National parks or State Reserves. Generally you can camp anywhere. In other areas, we would just check it was OK with the owner of the land (if we could find them)

    I will be back…..Frank

  2. frank_in_oz February 27, 2008 at 3:41 pm #

    btw, just got an error that looked like the comment was supposed to be sent to Gmail and failed…you may want to have a look at it…..

  3. earlylite February 27, 2008 at 5:48 pm #

    Frank – thanks for the visit and the feedback. Much appreciated. I am thrilled to have an international audience and look forward to your participation on the blog. I'll check into the gmail error msg. Thx. -Philip

  4. earlylite February 27, 2008 at 6:05 pm #

    Little configuration error. Comments work fine now. Thx, -Philip

  5. woodoak May 6, 2008 at 5:15 am #

    Hi Ya

    great site. I often go to The New Forest (England). this is a rather up tight place where you can walk and look but thats all unless you are happy to pay over the odds for a campsite. I Stelth camp with a hammock and i have never been hassled by the forest rangers. they have walked by a few times but did not see my camp. even when i had a fire going.

    Woodoak

  6. earlylite May 6, 2008 at 6:42 pm #

    Hammocks are the way to go for a stealth camp. They are impossible to see and by far the most flexible shelter provided the temperature is right. I'm thinking of stealth hammocking most of this summer but for slightly different reasons. I want to avoid the mobs that descend on the free Appalachian Trail shelters on weekends. I just want peace and quiet, and not to be constrained by a shelter stop when I can still walk few miles before I have to sleep. Thx for stopping by.

  7. nobby September 26, 2008 at 6:42 am #

    I'm not sure that hammocks are always best for stealth camping.

    I understand their versatility but they create an unnatural shape at, or near, eye level. That may not be a problem in sparsely populated areas.

    In the UK there are few sparsely populated areas with sufficient trees to hang a hammock so I think a low tent or bivvy is more satisfactory. It will merge with the ground cover.

  8. Kevin December 29, 2008 at 5:59 pm #

    I've got a few choice spots that I stealth camp at in North Georgia and North Carolina. Hammocks are great if you choose the right spots. Like Nobby said, they do create an unnatural shape. Proper site selection and hanging at angles away from direct line of sight minimize the "blob" that you see hanging in between trees.

    • Natalie September 5, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

      Hi Kevin,

      Where are your choice stealth camping spots in North Carolina and Georgia? Would love your suggestions.

  9. Chip January 8, 2009 at 11:34 pm #

    Hammocks look like the best idea! Great post…really enjoyed this. Still thinking about how I'm going to cook during my journey.

  10. Earlylite January 9, 2009 at 4:26 am #

    Hammocks are a great stealth camping option for a lot of reasons, although they have a limited temperature range and they're heavy. Given those limitations, you might also consider a tarp.

  11. lostalot January 19, 2009 at 11:01 am #

    Right on about avoiding game trails. It's not easy to sleep when one pissed-off deer after another gives you the snort-bleat because you're blocking their route. And hammock tents are the way to go in warm weather, but it should be a crime when meteorologists can't get nighttime lows within 20*F of what they end up being.

  12. Michael B July 1, 2009 at 8:00 am #

    Check out Hennessey hammocks. I used one for a week in the Fla Keys, ultralight, awesome.

    • nati September 25, 2013 at 6:51 pm #

      we’re looking to hammock in the keys…my first time seeing clear waters…so I basically want to hammock on a beautiful beach…any suggestions???

  13. Earlylite July 3, 2009 at 4:51 am #

    Yep. Got one of those. I like it for warmer nights in the Whites were there are just too many rocks on the ground to find a good place to sleep.

  14. James W July 6, 2009 at 9:34 am #

    Good article. The first time I read the term "stealth camping" it was in Ray Jardine's wise scriptures… Since reading that, I've always rolled my eyes when companions want to pitch tents on compacted mud "because it's flat and there's no bugs".

    Now I don't even bring a freestanding shelter, that way all I have to say is "I at least need trees for my tarps, guys". I've found this to be one of my main 'excuses' to their complaints.

    Sometimes it can be a drag "camping" with guys who insist that carrying 70 pounds and having everything you do (and don't) need makes you a better backpacker.

  15. Gav_Fae_Scotland September 28, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    HEy guys, awsome site! Ithink a hammock is a great idea but one better is a bivvie bag which you can sleep anywhere (trees like hammock, ground, in water (w/ head above)) also for if your cold and tired try building a fire "upside-down". big sticks at the bottom and wee ones on top. then kindling under some twigs, this fire will burn then the embers will sink down providing a long lasting head. Good luck guys – Gav

  16. SouthernAT December 3, 2010 at 10:45 am #

    A nice article. I enjoy stealth camping. But down here, it is strongly discouraged in many guidebooks and by the Sierra Club because of the impact it has on the wilderness. They say that it takes 2 weeks for the campsite to recover from one night of stealth camping, and a full season to recover from 2 nights. Is this the case up North?

  17. Earlylite December 3, 2010 at 10:50 am #

    It depends on how you camp I guess. I don't build a fire, I use existing sites, etc. Most of the sites I camp in in the White Mountains are in fact legal by the Wilderness standards, although I do everything I can to LNT. We also have winter and snow and many more sites are open to camping at that time.

  18. Tom Murphy December 4, 2010 at 6:30 am #

    I agree that if you are practicing good LNT methods then stealth camping is low impact. Especially no campfires. That is a big one. Hammocks help too : ). But LNT is not no impact just low impact so it is always a bit selfish by nature.

    I think that as you gain experience and see off-trail areas wrecked by fellow campers you learn to appreciate shelters and backcountry sites that focus EVERYONE ELSE's impact into one area.

    Very hypocritical of me since I wasn't a good LNT camper when I started but if everyone else took as much care as I do to minimize their foot print and impact as I do NOW then stealth, dispersed camping without shelters could work.

    I hope the Whites never need to go to a permit model like out West or Baxter

  19. Earlylite December 5, 2010 at 10:44 am #

    Stealth camping is not necessarily illegal camping either. It's just away from other people. Luckily most people in the White only use high use areas, leaving the rest free for the more adventuresome and hopefully mindful minority.

  20. Richard March 18, 2011 at 9:56 am #

    Your photo shows an American Chestnut sapling in the right front corner. That tree is basically extinct. Killed by a blight in the early 20th century they were a very dominant and useful tree. They come up as saplings now only to die upon maturity. Not wanting to give a botany lesson, but I thought it was interesting how it was captured in the photo.

  21. Katie May 2, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

    Working under the assumption that stealth camping is a practice not used out of necessity, but out of a desire to get away, I'm with Tom…I don't think it's good practice to advocate for camping in places you aren't supposed to camp.

    Established sites are there for a reason; purposely avoiding an established site in favor of an unestablished site just to get away from a few people makes no sense to me.

    If you need real solitude, you need to work a little harder to get to it. Places that are easily accessible are going to have people in them.

    I'm also vehemently opposed to going off trail unless absolutely necessary, which it sounds like stealth camping might require. There's no need to stomp on plants and other living things solely because the trail isn't exciting enough.

    And maybe if more folks practiced Leave No Trace, there wouldn't be issues with wildlife habituation and unwelcome bear visitors.

  22. Earlylite May 2, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    A valid opinion. I don't stealth camp much anymore when there are established campsites. Like you say, I just work harder to go to more remote places.

  23. Dillon January 10, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    Oh God the poor plants and ground. It’s ok if bear and deer step and shit on them, but not you.

    • Earlylite January 10, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

      I think you should refresh your understanding of Leave No Trace. You can abide by the principles and still walk off designated trails or camp at pristine sites as long as you do it carefully.

    • HairyGuy July 1, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

      perfectly said

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