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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.