Stealth camping is a great way to find some cool camping areas for free. Everyone loves to have their very own camping spot, away from everyone and everything else. After all, isn’t that the point of camping?
How do you set up camp without getting caught?
Here are 32 tips for you so you can get the most out of your stealth camping excursion without getting in a heap of trouble.
Wait, wait. So, what exactly is stealth camping?
Stealth camping is when you secretly set up camp in a private or public area for just one night. Why one night? So, you won’t be detected by the authorities if you choose an illegal spot.
While this website doesn’t condone any illegal activity, some campers love the thrill of choosing a campsite which is both private and illegal. For some, it may have to be done out of necessity.
Stealth camping can be done with a tent and sleeping bag, in your vehicle, or with a bicycle and pack.
The point of choosing a stealth camping spot instead of setting up camp at a legit campsite is for:
- affordability (it is free unless you are caught trespassing), and
- for the quiet location.
Is stealth camping illegal?
Stealth camping can be illegal. There are certain areas which allow people to camp in the woods, at unmarked locations. However, many places have trespassing laws which limit where you can set up camp.
Make sure to check the area in which you are camping, as well as your local forest bureau to find out which areas are legal for you to set up your tent.
This article is divided into three sections:
- Stealth camping tips for tent camping
- Urban stealth camping tips
- Stealth camping gear
STEALTH CAMPING TIPS (FOR TENT CAMPING IN FORESTED AREAS)
Here are some tips for stealth camping out in the woods.
1) Use tents and outdoor equipment which blend in with the foliage around you.
Animals aren’t the only things living in the woods, which can use camouflage to their benefit. Using these types of coverage and patterns can help you stay undetected if a passing forest ranger were to drive or hike by.
2) Leave the area cleaner than when you found it before.
This is good camping advice, whether you’re stealth, dispersed, or camping at a campsite. If you see trash on the ground, pick it up and move it out. However, in terms of being stealthy, the true meaning of this phrase is a little more dastardly.
Cover your tracks, hide footprints or bicycle tracks. Clean up broken branches, which might lead others to your area.
Set up your campsite just before dark. If you try to set up camp too early, there is more of a chance that you’ll be discovered. Too late and you’ll draw attention to yourself by using lanterns and flashlights.
3) Try to avoid using a campfire.
Campfires and smoke attract forest rangers as well as other people and even some animals. If you can help it, don’t start a campfire.
4) Be as quiet as you can.
The biggest rule of stealth camping (and one we will run across often) is to draw as little attention to yourself as you can. Being quiet will ensure that you won’t be alerting forest rangers or cops of your presence.
5) Camp away from any nearby roads or trails.
This ensures that no one can see the path to your impromptu campsite. After all, when you’re walking, most people have a tendency of looking down. If they’re following a trail and see a set of footprints leading to an area off the beaten path, they might get curious and follow it.
6) If you can, get to a vantage point.
If you’re up high, you’ll be able to see people, before they see you.
7) Pack the appropriate emergency kits.
If you’re backpacking, every ounce might matter, but remember that you are the only person who knows where you are. You are the only person who can rescue you if you get in trouble. Think of the dangers which are lurking in the area you want to stay:
- Are there wild animals you should watch out for?
- Should you prepare to set up camp in specific terrain?
- Inclement weather?
- What other hazards are there?
- Will this area flood in the morning?
There are many “general” first aid kits which you can buy in outdoor gear shops. Most of those are specific to outdoor injuries or incidents.
8) If it is going to be hard to get to your campsite, it will be less likely that someone will find you if you are in trouble.
You might consider telling someone you trust, exactly where you are (via satellite phone). At the least, tell that person the general area in which you will be camping.
9) Know that if you are walking down a dirt road, it will turn to mud if there is an overnight rainstorm.
Make sure you check the weather reports before you leave and make sure you have multiple exit strategies, just in case.
10) Watch out for a path that can be discovered by dogs.
There are plenty of forest rangers, policemen, or camp hosts who have dogs to keep them company. After all, it can get lonely out there, and it is safer to go out with a buddy—especially a four-legged one.
11) Camping inside a large gate or fence could mean bad news.
You may find a fence or gate open when you set up camp, however, it may be closed by morning. If you have to run for something or someone in the middle of the night, having to climb a large fence could be the difference between life and death (or prison).
12) Specific items you may want to carry with you in case of emergency are:
- Satellite phone
- Outdoor or heavy-duty thread and needle
- Pain meds
- Eye drops
- Band-aids (including some butterfly bandages)
- Antiseptic cream
- Sterile wipes and rinse solution
- Moleskins and a water purifier
- Anti-diarrhea meds
- Snakebite kit
- Burn cream
- Non-scented lip balm
- Duct tape
- Epi-pen/prescription meds
- Emergency blanket
- Pocket knife
If you are going RVing here’s our list of -must-have items.
(It’s a good list to run over even if you are camping with a tent!)
13) Don’t focus on the most scenic view.
When you are focusing on blending in, try not to find a spot with a beautiful view. Chances are, other people will try to claim that spot as well.
The point of stealth camping isn’t to stay the weekend in one spot. Camp should only be set up for the night.
14) Leave in the early morning.
Set your alarm on vibrate and keep it on you so you can wake at a decent time. Pack up quickly and move out so you don’t get caught.
15) If you get caught, it is best to feign ignorance and possibly offer to leave.
Quietly move on and find a different place to camp. If you are cooperative, polite, and don’t make a fuss, you might get away with a “slap on the wrist” instead of a fine—or even jail time.
16) Consider sleeping under the stars.
Not setting up a tent, makes for a speedy getaway in the morning.
17) Don’t have your heart set on one specific spot.
You might need to move in the middle of the night if you feel like it might be dangerous.
There is the possibility that someone could find you. Someone else might find that spot before you.
18) Setting up camp by a river isn’t the best idea.
The sound of the river may mask some (if not most) of the noise you might make, but there are other hazards to worry about. The river could rise in the morning. Other creatures or people might stop by the river to look for water or food.
19) Don’t camp with a group.
Normally, going camping, hiking, and doing other outdoor activities is much safer in a group than alone. It isn’t if you are stealth camping. Groups of people and/or tents are much easier to spot than just one tent or sleeping bag.
20) Stay clear of paths.
It might seem silly to say, but when it is dark and you are tired, you can miss the signs of a marked or worn path. Watch out for paths so you won’t be spotted in the morning.
Also, if you are well-hidden (with camo clothes and equipment), other vehicles might not see you. ATVs, other off-roading vehicles, and vehicles with blind spots might not see you when they go barreling out in the woods.
21) Take off all of the reflective, white, flashy, materials from your gear and clothing.
Once you are sure you are clear of paths, take all of the flashy material off of your gear and your clothes, or cover them with a camo blanket. These could catch the light from flashlights or passing headlamps.
URBAN STEALTH CAMPING TIPS
Just because you’re “camping”, that doesn’t mean that you have to have a tent or be out in the woods.
But before diving into urban stealth camping, let’s define some key terms:
What is the difference between Dry Camping and Boondocking?
While they may appear similar, dry camping and boondocking have a couple of distinct differences. Let’s start with boondocking.
Boondocking is a term used for camping (in an RV) without any hookups, for free. These refer specifically to places outside of developed campgrounds. Some people refer to it as “dispersed camping”. However, others consider dispersed camping to include tent camping as well.
Dry camping is also camping (in an RV) without the use of amenities or hookups. The difference is that dry camping doesn’t make the distinction of being outside of a developed campground. That means that you can dry camp on a campground.
Wait, what is urban stealth camping?
This just refers to sleeping in your vehicle in an urban area, without drawing extra attention to yourself. It is similar to boondocking, except that this isn’t with an RV but with a truck, SUV, or sedan.
22) Choose the right vehicle for the job.
If you want to choose a camper or a van which won’t stand out, go for a standard cargo van in white or a minivan.
These won’t alert the authorities to the fact that someone is sleeping in the vehicle (unlike if you were to use an RV). However, they are big enough to be comfortable.
23) Don’t choose anything with bright colors or with large signs on the side.
You want to be invisible and forgettable.
24) Try a box truck or a construction vehicle.
They can be parked discreetly and will hide well in urban areas.
25) Remember the three main rules of urban stealth camping:
- Show up late and leave early
- Keep your vehicle clean
- Rotate your parking locations regularly
26) Show up late at night and leave early.
A good plan is to park when you are ready to go to bed. Only stay in that spot when you are sleeping. Eat dinner somewhere else. Prepare to bed down in a different area as well.
Cover your windows with a curtain or something dark and inconspicuous. Set an alarm and get up early to start your day.
27) Clean vehicles are less of an eyesore and won’t annoy the people around you.
If you can stay off everyone’s radar, you’ll be more likely to blend in. Most people don’t mind seeing a clean vehicle parked on the street. If they do see it, they’ll pay no mind to it.
However, if it is crusted with dirt and mildew, they are more likely to complain to someone.
28) Rotate parking locations.
Avoid using the same location two nights in a row. If you’re in the city for a long time, try to map out around 10 different locations. If you are caught in one area, cross that one off the list.
You won’t be able to return to that one again.
29) Safety first.
Stay safe by making sure you keep your keys nearby, have an exit strategy, are aware of your surroundings, and park in areas that are well-lit.
30) Finding a good spot can be difficult.
Make a mental note of where there are a few 24-hour businesses. Some suggestions include:
- Cabela’s. Other outdoor stores might be able to accommodate RVs. Cabela’s, in particular, is an outdoor store which has a designated area for RVs.
- Walmart. This big box store is known for letting people park overnight in their parking lots. This works out well for urban stealth campers and
- Casinos. Casinos run all night and all day long. This means that there are vehicles in the parking lots at all times. You can easily hide amongst the crowd as long as your vehicle is inconspicuous.
- Hardware Stores and Auto Parts Stores. There is no shame in asking someone if you can park in their parking lot overnight. You don’t always have to sneak into the lot when no one is looking. Auto parts stores, in particular, are often well versed in this situation because cars will often break down in their lot.
- Truck stops and Rest Areas. These are the most preferred because this is what they are made for.
STEALTH CAMPING GEAR
Let’s talk a bit about the type of gear that you might need while you’re out in the woods (or in the heart of the city).
31) Consider building your own adventure van.
Some people have adventure vehicles which are more than just ATVs. These vehicles are completely enclosed and are made out of a van, SUV, or a small bus.
Before you decide to build your own adventure vehicle, consider what you’re going to use it for. Urban or forest camping? Snow or sun? What kind of terrain will it be driving on? What equipment will you need to carry? How many people will be with you?
Most people who have built their own adventure vans live out of them (not in them). They spend most of their time outside the vehicle, taking in the fresh air or doing outdoor activities. Or, they might be out in the city, exploring free or public areas.
31) What Is Some Good Stealth Camping Gear?
Stealth camping has somewhat of a bad reputation. Some people think that it only refers to illegal camping or
When it comes to a tent:
- Try to have as small of a footprint as possible. Aim for having a tent close to the size of a single sleeping bag.
- The maximum dimensions of the tent should be 3ft x 3ft x 7ft
- Choose neutral, low profile colors
Some other gear you might need includes:
- An 8 x8 foot tarp or something close
- A 30-degree sleeping bag which is rated for most weather conditions
- A pad for sleeping
- Layers of clothing so you can easily acclimate to the various weather conditions.
- Wool socks with a liner or blister pad for your shoes
- Durable, quick-drying fabric for clothing (think nylon or spandex)
- Avoid cotton if possible
- A wide-brimmed hat for protection from both the rain, sun, and snow
- A water bottle or canteen that is temperature and climate-appropriate
- A water purification system you feel comfortable with
- A buff, handkerchief, or a bandanna
- A small blade or a pocketknife
- 4-inch (minimum) blade which is fixed, not a foldable pocketknife
- Dehydrated or packed food, enough for your stay plus either one extra day or a few extra protein bars
- A small gas stove to heat food or water, if necessary
- A small collapsible cooking set, if necessary
- A camera (small and low profile is best, like a GoPro)
- A pen and a notepad or small notebook
- Dry bags for your extra clothes
- An extra bag for trash or other things you will be packing out
- fire-making materials of your choice (we generally default to friction fire methods although modern backups are welcome)
- Vinyl cord: para chord or equivalent bank line are good choices. 50 foot is a good length to have for emergencies or general use.
- Collapsible saw
- heavy-duty 55-gallon drum bag or liner
- An inflatable pillow (which is much smaller than a regular pillow and can help with neck and back pain)
- Hand sanitizer (gets rid of the need for paper towels and a washing station) and hand/face/body wipes (allows you to clean yourself without having to disperse any biodegradable soapy water).
32) But I Can’t Afford Fancy Outdoor Gear…
Camping and outdoor gear can start to add up quickly. In order to minimize what you need to carry and the total cost of your gear, you can do a few things.
Consider only going on stealth camping trips during temperate weather. With damp, windy, or snowy weather, you’ll need more complicated gear and layers or extra clothes. You can even downsize from a tent and sleeping bag to a hammock with a built-in bug net.
While that might not be the quickest escape, it is much more portable, and your footprint is much smaller this way. This also allows you the benefit of not needing a tarp or the extra gear that goes with tents.
Of course, you might not be able to avoid the rain, so having one set of emergency rain gear (like a small poncho) is a good habit.
Unless there is a posted sign saying otherwise, stealth, dispersed, urban, dry, or boondock camping isn’t illegal. Stealth camping usually means camping in undeveloped, wild, unfenced areas. The point of stealth camping isn’t to cause trouble but because you just need a peaceful night’s rest.
There’s no reason why you can’t have any fun while you’re stealth camping. Camping is an enjoyable activity. It is often calming and a Zen-like experience to be out in nature, especially in undeveloped parts of nature where you don’t have to worry about streetlights and other people.
Stealth camping is done for one of two reasons: for the joy of the adventure and for the necessity. The morality of stealth camping for the latter is a much bigger topic which doesn’t have an easy answer.
However, when it comes to the joy of the adventure, stealth camping can be both energizing and legal. Remember that the phrases “Free to Use” and “Open to Public” isn’t always interchangeable.
Just because you can hike in an area, that doesn’t mean you can camp there.
On a lighter note, stealth camping is also often used to describe a type of camping which has extremely little impact on the world around you. Tent campers (and adventure vehicle enthusiasts) will often camp in legal dispersed areas.
But because you’re being stealthy, one of the side effects is that you leave a small carbon footprint after these camping excursions.
This is due to the stealthy habits of these campers:
- They pick up after themselves,
- Their adventure vehicles are clean and often energy-efficient,
- They try to leave things as undisturbed as possible,
- They only stay as long as they need to (not as long as they want to).
I grew up close to the coast and loved to go sailing with my dad. I completely rebuilt two RVs with my wife in which we travel as much as we can. I’ve filmed and interviewed tiny house people and RVers since 2011 and downsized (extensively!) to get out of debt and out on the road. Read our personal story here.