What stealth camping actually is and why it’s practiced by thru-hikers and others on the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail isn’t always clear. In an attempt to better understand the motives behind why thru-hikers do what they do, to demystify what true stealth camping is, and how to do it right, here’s my take on the topic.
What is Stealth Camping?
Stealth camping is camping at a non-designated campsite, sometimes called ‘wild camping’ or ‘dispersed camping.’ In reality, a stealth campsite should be where no one can see you and no one could ever tell you were there.
To quote the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) website, ‘Dispersed camping, which means campers have the freedom to select the location of their campsite, is allowed in some areas of the A.T. Dispersed camping, sometimes called “stealth camping,” requires more time and effort and skill to find a comfortable and low-impact site than using a designated site, but can offer solitude and other advantages. Dispersed camping opportunities are most abundant on the A.T. in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia on US Forest Service lands. It is prohibited in many areas, so it’s important to know local regulations.’
Now, this is where it gets interesting. When I thru-hiked the AT in 2016, to say you were stealth camping was the common, thru-hiker lingo that meant you didn’t sleep at one of the many shelters and designated campgrounds. However, there’s nothing ‘stealth’ about a bare piece of ground that had obviously been used before for a tent, just off the trail. Thru-hikers weren’t always hip to taking the time, effort, and skill to find a low-impact site that was actually hidden.
So, they think they’re ‘stealth’ camping, but in reality, they’re just using a pre-existing site. I will transparently admit this was me initially until I took the initiative to get savvy and learn to do the right thing.
Why Don’t Thru-Hikers Understand Stealth Camping?
The bottom line is that thru-hikers often follow what other thru-hikers do, or there’s been evidence of them doing. I know because I’ve been in this club as well; we learn by example. Hiking the AT and PCT are long-distance trails that you actually don’t need a lot of previous hiking experience or preparation for, depending on your personality type and experience. So, many aspiring thru-hikers hop on the trail and just learn by doing. While I’m often a fan of just getting out there and learning as you go, there are some principles we need to be aware of to treat these trails, the surrounding environment, and local users with respect.
So, thru-hikers may not really understand what real stealth camping is because they never researched, learned, or were taught how and when to do it right.
Why Do Thru-Hikers Camp Wherever They Feel Like It?
The bottom line answer to this question is they’re plain exhausted. At the end of a 25+ mile day, there’s little more you want to do than just set up your tent, eat and sleep. I’ve been there. But that’s where ethics creep in and even if that’s you or me, we do our best to step up and do the right thing.
The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) website lays it out very well here by saying, ‘It seems that many PCT hikers could stand to leave more time for daily planning. A very real impact along the PCT of people not having better daily plans is that more hikers choose campsites and tent pads that do not follow another LNT principle: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces. Campsites, even if only for one night, should be at least 200 feet away from the PCT and water sources.’
Many thru-hikers, fatigued from miles of hiking, may wander into a potential campsite in the dark guided only by their headlamps. They pitch camp right next to the trail or next to a water source because they haven’t given themselves time to find a low-impact campsite before dark. The next hiker along does the same and soon the vegetation at this campsite is gone, more people use it, and the damage spreads as it grows larger.
Don’t be Selfish
As thru-hikers, we set out on this grand endeavor to accomplish a goal in a certain amount of time. But it’s not just about us; it’s about the environment we’re impacting and the people who hike years after us. Sadly, some thru-hikers forget this or just don’t care because they’re so set on their personal goals. Then there’s the lack of awareness by following what others do, which compounds the problem.
Another point to consider is that these long-distance trails have gotten more crowded, especially the AT. Many thru-hikers want to get away from others to camp in some peace and quiet, and perhaps also to put a little less impact on a designated camping area. The key though is to make sure you’re finding a stealth campsite the right way, in an area where it’s allowed, rather than going against the restrictions of being in a state/national park or forest. Just because we want space and privacy doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want, wherever we want.
When Is It Cool to Stealth Camp?
- If there’s a lot of rodent or bear activity around a shelter/camp area.
- To minimize the impact of too many hikers at a designated camp area.
- To enjoy a beautiful spot all to yourself: assuming you practice LNT to keep it that way.
- If you’re hammock camping and you can tuck yourself away while also not making an impact on the ground, which is a win-win.
- During COVID times: the ATC has actually encouraged this more than staying
in the shelters (and many have been closed) to keep hikers socially distanced.
When Is It NOT Cool to Stealth Camp?
- If you’re in a national/state park or forest, or on private property, and there are prohibitions against it. Don’t think you’re too cool for rules, aka it’s illegal.
- If making your ‘perfect’ campsite requires you to rip out plants, destroy grass, seedlings, etc. – when it’s obvious you were there and you end up harming the natural environment.
- If you haven’t checked for hazard trees because people have been killed by falling trees/limbs.
How to Practice Stealth Camping as a Thru-Hiker
Leave Yourself Enough Time
If you know you prefer to stealth camp away from others, don’t wait till it’s dark and you’re dead tired, leading you to be lazy and use a pre-existing site right near the trail.
Check Local Camping Rules and Regulations
Be aware of where you’re hiking so you don’t find yourself in a pinch and end up breaking the regulations. For example, the AT follows pre-existing trails through many National Parks and Forest. It’s your responsibility to find out and abide by local camping restrictions. The ATC has published a comprehensive list of camping regulations for the AT. Save it as a PDF on your phone and abide by it. There are also places along the PCT where a special camping permit is required including North Cascades National Park (Washington), Obsidian Limited Entry Area (Oregon), Pamelia Limited Entry Area (also in Oregon), and Mt. Whitney (California).
Take at Least 70 Big Steps
When camping is permitted, it’s usually restricted to locations that are 200 feet from a trail, trail junction, or a water source: 200 feet is around 70 big steps. Count them out.
Find a Campsite, Don’t Make One
The aim is to look for a durable, flat surface that will be minimally impacted by your night’s stay. This means it’s already there and you don’t have to create it. No digging up soil, plants, flowers, or moving rocks or logs to build your idyllic Shangri-la.
Understand the Difference Between Pre-Established Site and Stealth Camping
There’s a difference; stealth is when you’re hidden and there are no signs of previous use while a pre-established site is an area where the ground is already bare from use.
The ATC and PCTA suggest avoiding spots that show signs of frequent use so they can recover. However, if you can’t stealth camp the right way, it’s better to use a pre-established site (that’s legal) rather than clear land to make one. It’s a bit of a gray area, so be aware and use discretion.
Learn about Leave No Trace
One of the best ways to educate yourself on stealth camping and being outdoors, in general, is to familiarize yourself with the Leave No Trace Principles. Don’t be shy in spreading the good word with other thru-hikers either; many of us are eager to do the right thing, we simply have to be educated, told, and care enough to learn.
It’s our responsibility as thru-hikers to be stewards of the trail and demonstrate the proper practices for other backpackers to follow. Stealth camping can be a wonderful experience that enhances our connection with nature and getting away from it all, but let’s remember to be considerate and think about the future of the trails, people who use them and aren’t thru-hikers, and other living things besides ourselves.