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 off and I find a good site to make camp.
Stealth camping is the term given to camping at an unestablished wilderness site. 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.
Stealth camping requires good campsite selection skills. 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.
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 a 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 a private landowner provides access to their land and asks that you not camp or make a fire, it’s best to respect their wishes. Otherwise, they can refuse public access and we all lose.
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