Stealth Camping on the AT and the PCT

Stealth Camping on the AT and PCT

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.

How, and what, stealth camping actually is often misunderstood by thru-hikers
How, and what, stealth camping actually is often misunderstood by thru-hikers.

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.

Many thru-hikers opt to stealth camp to get away from the crowds
Many thru-hikers opt to stealth camp to get away from the crowds.

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.
A legit stealth campsite.
A legit stealth campsite.

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.

Hammock camping can provide a great way to stealth camp
Hammock camping can provide a great way to stealth camp

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.

Camping responsibly is an important practice to follow as a thru-hiker
Camping responsibly is an important practice to follow as a thru-hiker.

Wrapping Up

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.

About the author

Heather Daya Rideout has been a life-long outdoorswoman. Her pursuits and passion for hiking and camping have taken her around the world for many long-distance trips; such as backpacking in Nepal, India, South America, Morocco, Europe, and North America. Heather has hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and a route of 1,500 miles combining several Camino routes through Spain and Portugal. On any given day she would rather be outdoors than anything else and her lifestyle is a direct reflection of that deep love affair with nature. Heather currently lives in Idaho and she’s having a wondrous time experiencing the beauty it offers. You can read some of her other writing at www.wanderyoga.com.

30 comments

  1. Comedy:
    California passed a new law making Stealthing illegal. I’ve said too much. The sensors will be coming to arrest you soon.

  2. Thanks for the article, it helps.

  3. Yes. Great piece.

  4. I notice you didn’t mention whether fires are considered to be a stealth camping techinique (I’m talking small campfires, not woodburning stoves.) While I’ve seen a few (very few) people who can build a fire in a stealth site and restore the site so you can’t tell there was a fire, the vast majority of us, including me, don’t have that kind of skill. Therefore, in most cases, I would feel that fires and stealth camping would not be compatible. (I mostly haven’t lit fires anywhere in the last 30 years, unless I’m in a group – and someone else is willing to look for wood and carry water to extinguish it. It’s a personal preference, developed after trying Colin Fletcher’s tip about a fire cutting you off from the night.)

    How do you feel about the use of campfires when stealth camping?

    • As a thru-hiker, I don’t lean toward making fires because there’s never time for that at end of day. Walk, eat, sleep is it!

      On the PCT there are strict fire restrictions which I believe it’s important to know about and respect. Depending on the region, there were more fires on the AT, but these were created responsibly and put out that way as well.

      So, personally I’m OK with fires while stealth camping as long as someone knows what they’re doing and it’s allowed.

    • A significant problem with campfires isn’t visible as the damage occurs to the soil. Soils are extremely complex microorganic systems that are still not well-understood, yet the majority of biotic activity on Earth occurs in the top three inches of the soil (!!). Building a fire in a “stealth” location creates a dead zone under the fire – the life is literally cooked out of it. If you must have a fire, the trade-off is camping in an established site – that cowboy hypnotic experience will be worth it.

  5. Hi Daya!

    Great article with many good points. One bit I would like to add is the impact Guthook has on thru-hiker’s campsite selection. How many times have you witnessed hikers planning where they are going to camp that night based on marked campsites in Guthook or comments which indicate so called stealth sites? If you experience is anything like mine, and I’m guessing it is since we hiked the AT and PCT in the same years, it’s plenty. Many of these are not legal, LNT sites. I know it a difficult task, but I think some changes to the app which discourage these types of postings could go a long way to reduce the spread of illegal sites on the most popular of our National Scenic Trails.

    • I’m going backpacking with Guthook next week. I’ll bring it up. But I don’t think removing a feature like that would have much impact, to be honest. Those sites exist now and will continue to be used. What’s needed is re-education of thru-hikers as well as other backpackers. The change, if it’s going to happen, has to come from the community itself.

      • One more thing. Just got back from a backpacking trip where we were talking about this topic.

        When these trails were first established the population of the US was about 1/3 to 1/2 of what it was now. Not just the National Scenic Trails but trails in the National parks and National forests. I suspect that the problem of illegal camping would be significantly reduced if there were more legal campsites available for people to use, including designated backcountry sites. For example, in the White Mountain National Forest where I backpack, we simply have far too few places to camp to support the hiking/backpacking population. It’s not even close to being adequate. Not only that, the USFS (and mapmakers) won’t publish the location of the few designated backcountry sites that do exist.

      • I really like your point about more designated campsites. That would do alot to concentrate use and reduce illegal campsites.

    • Hi Crocamole and so good to hear from you! I see that Philip already replied to your comment regarding talking with Guthook and his thoughts on it. I agree that re-education could Ben helpful because if we do see it on the app, we could choose for a better site, right? My take was that many of us thru-hikers just didn’t/don’t know better till we learn the right thing to do…then we have to do it.

      I hope to hike with you again someday!

  6. Why don’t you just call it dispersed camping because
    Stealth Camping has negative connotations with some people.

    • Todd, that’s a solid thought there. Stealth does kind-of give it a negative meaning.

      • Everyone calls it stealth camping, not dispersed, even though what people do today bears no resemblance to the original meaning of stealth camping, which was to camp someplace where you were effectively trespassing. The only people who call it “dispersed” camping work for the forest service, the park service, or the Leave No Trace Foundation.

    • I really like your point about more designated campsites. That would do alot to concentrate use and reduce illegal campsites.

  7. Building a fire and Leaving No Trace isn’t hard. A Dakota hole, a Finnish firee or a raised cooking fire will all accomplish the same thing but everyone can still smell your fire. Best to stop, cook, move, then camp.

  8. Please stop using the words “stealth camping” because in most cases that I have seen, because what is really going on is trail-side camping. I have even seen camping in the middle of the trail! While it might seem better to keep the impacts closer to the trail and for sites to be re-used, there are the problems with campfire scarring, human waste, litter and cutting of trees. Get away from the trail, forgo fires, and practice real LNT. It’s nicer to have a private campsite.

    • It doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s just bad. But talk to 99% of the backpackers out there and they call trail-side camping stealth camping, because it sounds cool. It isn’t.

  9. Stealth is a misleading term if it truly equates to dispersed.
    I often see people making YouTube videos about stealth camping behind stores or other urban locations. Does that mean stealth camping terminology applied in wilderness camping is incorrect, no. One can pick their site for the purpose of no detection. However dispersed camping doesn’t mean for the purpose of no detection. Dispersed means camping can be spread out across the land while practicing LNT.

  10. It’s a rare treat when I can’t find something wrong in an article about hiking and camping. As an old man, lifelong outdoors guy, and sometimes hobo, I have learned an awful lot of tricks. And I have come to really value the art of site selection.

    So thank you for the best written article this decade.

    I always get a kick out of dirt sleepers or swingers who find a beautiful soft spot just off a deer trail and haven’t taken the time to understand the life cycle of a tick. But these days it’s not a laughing matter. Lyme disease can ruin your life. Likewise, walking off a cliff in the dark and foraging for your own mushrooms are potentially fatal activities. Or worse, not fatal.

    • I started cowboy camping over 50 years ago and never gave it a thought for many years. The last few decades with Lyme disease has totally changed my habits on that though.

  11. 40 years ago I was a volunteer maintaining a 3-mile stretch of the AT in the Shenandoah. Every time I went out I had to clean up a fire pit and associated debris and trash left by “dispersed” campers. I suspect they were weekend hikers, not through hikers who probably stayed in/around the shelter about 2 miles away. But whoever they were, their irresponsible trashing of a lovely spot always irked me. Today I live on a small river and am amazed by the kayakers who are out floating the river, just whooping and hollering and having a grand time enjoying Nature; of course the birds and critters hear them coming and are all hidden away. I wish there were a way to convince people to treasure the outdoors.

  12. Excellent article. 71 now, my wife and I lived in Roanoke and enjoyed camping as my kids grew up. I lived in the Middle East for 30, years. My camping involved “stealth” camping, not for pleasure but as part of training others or to fulfil task requirement. Potable water was always a problem. Yemen, Saudi, Lebanon, Jordan, etc.

  13. I volunteer in Georgia and during the bubble, we encourage hikers to use what I refer to as camper created sites if they are not going to stay at shelters or designated camp sites. Not every NOBO gets to Maine, but they all get to Georgia and the impact every Spring is significant. USFS will sometimes rope off areas for renaturalization, but given the sheer volume in the bubble and year-round use due to our close proximity to metro Atlanta, most of the dispersed sites easily visible from the trail will never recover. As long as hikers don’t expand them, or build additional fire rings, they aren’t going to further impact those sites. Like bear hangs, my guess is a lot of overwhelmed, exhausted thru hikers would do only a mediocre job of truly stealth camping, and probably create more impact and social trails in the process.

    And thank you for linking to the regulations for the entire AT. I often see comments from thru hikers encouraging others to flaunt local regulations. Land managers are trying to manage their resources in way that preserves them for future generations of hikers and have regulations in place toward that purpose.

  14. I have mediated a number of online arguments between people who had no idea that they were using different definition of the term “Stealth Camping”. One group thinks it means illegal camping and others who use the way this article does. What they had in common is that they both were sure they were right and oblivious to the fact that anyone used the term differently. I will add that another use of this term I have seen refers specifically to the practice of camping someplace other than where you cook/eat (making animals unaware of your presence). The only solution is to recognize that there are many different uses of this term.

  15. Yeah, I’ve always heard this be referred to as “backcountry” (by hikers) or “dispersed” camping (by the cops who kicked me out of a National Forest established campground insisting it was OK if I instead camped 200 yards away — which I did).

    When I’ve heard folks talk about “stealth” camping they were referring to trespassing on private property, hiding in public parks, and the like (e.g. you should use alcohol stoves so no one can see the light or hear the noise). I wouldn’t recommend using this term to describe legal activity or promoting ehat others call “stealth camping”.

  16. I’ve always camped off-trail; mostly for my safety. For the same reason I rarely had fires in the evening. AM fires were just big enough to heat water using twigs. My campsites looked like a deer bed for a really large deer, but other than that they were clean.

  17. “BEEN THERE, DONE THAT” on the AT in the Shennandoah Nat’l. Forest.
    My hiking buddy wanted to sleep at yet another overcrowded, mouse-infested “designated camp/shelter” and I diid NOT.

    So I stopped a mile before the shelter and sealth camped off in the woods after filling my hydration bag with filtered water beforehand. It was a wonderfully quiet and peaceful night.

    The next morning I met my sleep-deprived buddy as he was just getting his breakfast started – outside, in a drizzle which had just begun.

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