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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Not dragging logs or tree branches into a campsite to sit on: LNT Principle: Leave what you find.
- 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.
- Hanging a bear bag to prevent bears from becoming used to human food. LNT Principle: Respect Wildlife.
- 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
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.