Whether you call it stealth camping, wild camping or guerrilla camping it’s all the same. Stealth camping is the act of quietly finding a campsite away from designated camping areas. You slip in set up camp for the night and slip out in the morning before anybody notices.
Unless I’m hiking with a group I tend to stay away from established campsites. As a solo hiker, I tend to avoid designated shelters. There’s a reason why I’m camping alone and I tend not to want company.
I just hike until I get tired, top up my water, and find a good place to set up camp. If you don’t see a “No Trespassing” sign you can usually set up camp without having to worry. Just secretly set up camp, follow the Leave No Trace Principles and nobody will know you were ever there.
What is Stealth Camping?
There’s just something fun about stealth camping. Whether it’s legal or not, it’s always a fun time. Just get in, set up camp, and move out before anybody notices. The key to stealth camping is to remain hidden and leave no trace. If you do it right nobody will ever know you were there.
I may or may not have done my fair share of guerilla camping in “no camping” areas. When you’re thru-hiking or bikepacking you never know if your campsite is technically legal.
I would never recommend stealth camping where you know it’s illegal. There’s a big difference between camping on public land, where most people avoid, and going to private property and other forbidden places.
It’s just not worth pissing off a property owner. I’m not a homeless person, although I sometimes look like one, you never know how a property owner will respond to stumbling upon my campsite.
You don’t want to force a property owner into an uncomfortable/unpredictable situation. Who knows if the person is emotionally and mentally stable. When I’m tuckered out at the end of the day the last thing I want is an angry property owner calling the cops. It’s just so much easier to find a secluded spot and set up camp without anybody knowing.
- Guerilla Camping: Setup a stealthy shelter in the wild without anybody noticing you. Your shelter should blend in with the surrounding area so nobody will notice you’re there.
- Stealth Car Camping: Stealthy car camping is becoming increasingly popular in the past couple of years. Campers are customizing their cars, and blacking out windows, so they can sleep without anybody noticing.
Why is Stealth Camping Popular?
Stealth camping is both a cheap way to camp and separates you from the usual camping crowd. You can get a good nights rest without dealing with the hustle of other campers and vehicles.
Getting away from everybody is a completely different camping experience. You feel like you’re getting away with something. Whether you’re camping in the bush or camping in your car it’s a way to get away from it all.
Main Benefits of Stealth Camping
- Won’t See Other Campers: If you do it right you’ll never see other campers and if you do they shouldn’t notice your campsite.
- More Peaceful: It’s peaceful when you don’t have to deal with other campers. You don’t have to deal with drunk teenagers and playing children. As a solo hiker, it can’t get any better than stealth camping.
- Avoid Dangerous Wildlife: Wild animals will go wherever they’ve found food in the past. Campgrounds are hot spots for rodents, raccoons, bears, possums, etc.
Is Stealth Camping Legal?
Generally speaking, stealth camping means you’re camping in an area without permission to set up camp. If there are “No Trespassing” signs everywhere that means the property owners have had problems with campers/hunters in the past. You’re better off continuing down the trail for a bit.
Whether or not stealth camping is legal depends on where you are. In most jurisdictions, it’s frowned upon(possibly illegal), but you’ll just be told to move on. If you’re in a remote area, not causing trouble(making a mess), nobodies gonna care.
It’s the whole “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” argument. If nobody knows you’re there, you might as well have a “no harm, no foul” attitude.
Just don’t be a jerk about it. If you see No Camping signs don’t be surprised if you’re woken up by an angry landowner with a shotgun. Apologize and move on, there’s no point in arguing. He’s probably already called the cops, had to deal with arrogant idiots in the past, and not going to change his mind.
What if The Cops Show Up
If the forest ranger/police are there, be friendly laugh it off and play dumb. It’s dangerous for a cop to wander off in the woods without backup, he will be on edge so try to diffuse the situation to calm things down.
Police officers aren’t trying to be a**holes so you probably won’t be ticketed. They aren’t really worried about backpackers sleeping in the woods. If you don’t cause any damage there’s nothing to worry about(at worst you’ll get a 50$ ticket).
Most cops will give you the option of moving on or go to jail. Pack up, move along and accept a ride back to your car if offered.
Where Do You Park Your Car?
Parking is the only thing that stops most of us from just camping wherever you feel like it. It would be a heck of a coincidence for law enforcement to just run into you a fair distance away from the trail after dark.
The only thing really stopping you from camping where you’re not supposed to is the question… Where do I park my car? If there’s nowhere safe to leave your car there’s no camping. Leave your car in a parking lot overnight and you’ll either get towed or told to leave. Most parks have security/LEO patrolling the area so you’ll be quickly discovered.
Unless you want to get towed, you can either park at designated campgrounds and hike out. Or you can get dropped off nearby.
How to Stealth Camp Without Getting Caught
Before you set up camp alongside the trail, you need to think about how you’re going to stay hidden. Go in with a gameplan so nobody will ever know you’re there.
- Good Idea to Stealth Camp: Stealth camping opens you up to some of the best camping spots in the world. You can get away from the usual camping crowd, avoid nuisance animals, and enjoy views you just can’t get in a campground.
- Bad Idea to Stealth Camp: Don’t setup camp in areas that have been ravaged by other campers in the past. If you see trail cams, “No Trespassing” or “No Camping” signs keep on moving. You don’t want to encounter a pissed off landowner that just wants to defend his property.
All Regular Camping Rules Still Apply
Just because you’re stealth camping doesn’t mean you don’t need to follow the rules. All the regular camping rules should still apply. Follow all the Leave No Trace Principles, avoid common dangers and protect your food source(bear canister or bear bag).
Leave your campsite in the same condition you found it. Nobody should know you were ever there. Pack out all your trash so that future campers have a place to stay.
Don’t Stealth Camp During The Hunting Season
For your own safety don’t stealth camp during the hunting season. There’s a reason why hunters all wear blaze orange hunting gear. You don’t want to accidentally get shot trespassing through somebodies hunting ground.
If a hunter sees you at night he’s likely to report you as a poacher. You’ll end up waking up to the footsteps of the local ranger.
Use a little bit of common sense and where bright colors during gun season. This isn’t the time/place to blend in with nature.
1)Set Up Camp Away From Roads
Try to avoid camping along regularly used roads and heavily trafficked trails. Just walk 100ft off the trail and nobody will ever see you. If you absolutely have to camp near a trail or road head for nearby hills.
When backpackers/hikers walk they tend to look down at the trail ahead of them. They’re looking for uneven ground and animals. If you camp above trail level they probably won’t notice you. Plus with a birds-eye view you’ll see them before they see you.
Be Careful Around Limited-Access Roads
Limited-access roads that run through a forest might seem like the perfect spot to set up camp, but don’t be fooled. Access roads going back to power lines and oil wells are popular ATV trails.
It’s easier for landowners to access remote areas of their property and you never know when someones going to rip through in the middle of the night. Keep an eye out for fresh ATV tracks and be careful.
2)Use Earth Colored Tents and Camo Netting
Choose a tent that won’t stick out like a sore thumb. Stick to light brown, green and earth-toned tents/hammocks. A little bit of camouflage goes a long way while stealth camping.
Do yourself a favor and pick up some camo netting off Amazon. The stuff is seriously cheap and it makes a night/day difference in visibility. Plus you can match the surrounding terrain. Green for the spring/summer, brown for fall and white in the winter.
Just be careful during the hunting season. You might get shot if you aren’t careful and you might get mistaken for a poacher and end up getting hassled.
3)Clean Up After Yourself(Cover Your Tracks)
If you’re stealth camping correctly nobody will ever know you were there. Cover up your tracks, try not to traipse through mud and disturb the surrounding landscape.
Use a deers bedding area as a reference. The leaves might be a little messed up and sticks are broken, but the surrounding area remains untouched. When you take down your campsite nobody should ever know you were there.
4)Don’t Make a Fire
Fires draw attention to your campsite. In a dark forest, you can see a campfire from miles away. You also have to deal with a smoke cloud in the sky.
Don’t make a fire unless you absolutely have to. If you’re in danger of freezing to death, yes light a fire, but otherwise, it’s a bad idea. It’s just gonna draw unwanted attention.
Don’t Use Lights at Night: Flashlights and headlamps are more likely to be seen than campfires. Just like fires lights will generally attract attention.
If you need light at night choose a headlamp with a red, green or blue light. Use it for short periods of time and in short 1-2 second bursts. Red lights are much harder to see at night than white.
5) Stick to Small Groups
Stealth campers should limit their group size to 1-2 people. It’s so much easier to stay hidden in a small tent. With a large group, it’s hard to avoid trampling the area. You need a much bigger footprint to set up camp.
6)Never Get Caught or Play Dumb
Obviously, if it’s frowned upon or illegal to camp somewhere don’t get caught. There’s no reason to get in trouble for stealth camping. If somebody spots you, you’re not doing it right.
If you do happen to get caught you’re better off playing dumb. Honestly, it’s worse to be caught by a pissed off landowner than a cop. Landowners can be irrationally angry when protecting their property.
You don’t know if the guy is armed or bat-shit crazy. Diffuse the situation, apologize and move on. There’s no point in arguing with a crazy person.
On the other hand, most Cops/Rangers don’t really give a crap about stealth camping. If you apologize, pack up your campsite and move on nothing’s going to happen. You probably won’t even get a ticket(if you do it’s like $30) that’s less than most camping permits.
7)Obey The Rules or Understand The Consequences
There’s a big difference between stealth camping and “illegal camping”. If the rules say you have to camp in “established campsites” just follow the rules. It’s not worth pissing people off when you can just go backpacking somewhere else.
There are so many campgrounds that allow camping in off-trail places where nobody will ever know you’re there. If you do decide to camp somewhere that’s technically illegal, be responsible and understand the consequences if you get caught.
8)How to Find a Stealth Campsite
It really isn’t all that difficult to find a stealth campsite. It’s all about setting up camp away from the usual routes. If it’s hard for you to get into the sight it will be hard for everybody else. Just make sure you have some way to call for help if needed(this is where a Satellite Phone comes in handy).
Watch Out For Early Morning Crowds
Your goal should be to blend in, not stand out. Don’t look for that scenic view that will attract attention. Avoid steep overlooks, lakes, rivers and anywhere that draws a regular morning crowd. If you do get up early and pack up camp before other campers arrive.
Just because the place is barren at night doesn’t mean it’s going to be empty in the morning. Be willing to change up your spot if you realize the site will be discovered.
If somebody asks if you’re allowed to camp there, lie and play dumb(unless they’re in uniform). Most people don’t actually know the rules and they aren’t willing to argue. If you get questioned, pack up and get moving.
“Private Property”, “No Camping”, “No Trespassing”
Just move on if there’s a nearby no tresspassing/camping sign. These areas are probably private property(or dangerous) and you won’t have an excuse of somebody questions you. Plus landowners are probably watching out for hunters and campers. You’ve probably set off a 3g trail cam so move on.
Ask Where You Can Camp
Most campgrounds that don’t technically allow “off-site camping” will turn a blind eye if you ask nicely. Park Rangers understand that some people want to get away from the crowds. If you follow the leave no trace principles and stay away from the trail you should be good to go. They might even point you in the right direction.
9)Don’t Feel Guilty and Have Fun
Most of the time, stealth camping isn’t actually illegal. All it means is you’re camping in the wild away from developed campsites. That might be frowned upon by management, but it’s not technically against the rules.
Getting away from the general public and staying out of sight isn’t actually a crime in most places. Just because most people camp in designated campsites doesn’t mean you have to.
Remember that the whole reason you went camping is to have fun. If you’re going to freak out and worry about getting in trouble stealth camping isn’t for you. If it isn’t fun there’s no reason to be out there.
10)Camp in Inconspicuous Areas
Set up camp in places where people won’t really care if they find you. Avoid places that are obviously illegal like abandoned buildings, fenced in areas, businesses and public places.
People freak out when they see tents in unusual places. Avoid places with young children and never camp in the same place twice. The longer you stay in a place the more likely you are to draw some unwanted attention.
Just try not to arouse suspicion. Don’t let anybody see you setting up camp or moving to/away from your campsite.
11)Look For Signs of Animals
Always keep an eye out for signs of wild animals. This is especially important while camping in bear country. Although most animals stick to established campgrounds looking for food you don’t want to be caught off guard by dangerous animals.
Avoid areas that are covered in a large amount of poop. You’re probably on a farm with herding animals. This isn’t a good idea.