How to Camp (Almost) Anywhere and Not Get Busted

Six strategies earned from cycling through 40 countries and four continents.


Hey, AJ friends and family! The Adventure Journal team is covering the Outdoor Retailer show in Denver this week and will be posting lightly to the site. Some of these posts will come from the best of our archives, including this one. For updates from the show, check out our Instagram.

It’s one of the most stressful questions of the adventure cyclist: “Where the hell I am going to sleep tonight?”

Well, I believe that it is every human being’s nature-given right to sleep without having to pay for the privilege. Some might consider the idea delusional, delinquent, idealistic, or impossible. But believing it acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Conviction is the first thing you need on the journey to the as-yet-unknown place where you’ll rest your head.

In four months of cycling from England to Turkey, across all of Western and Eastern Europe, I spent a total of five nights in paid accommodation. It was difficult and stressful – at first. But soon, the realization that it was not only possible but actually easy became a source of liberation. Since then, I’ve spent half a decade relying on the wild camp for overnighting during my travels on four continents.

The initial power to do this came from stubbornness of character. I refused outright to even consider paid accommodation. I didn’t think about it, therefore it didn’t exist. (I was a real expert in stubbornness.)

If an average hostel in Europe costs $10 a night, my first four months would have cost an extra $1,200 (on top of my $5-per-day food budget) – about 20 percent of what I thought was my entire round-the-world trip budget for several years! Compare that to $200-$250 for a good-quality lightweight tent and the numbers speak for themselves.

Since then, practice has made almost-perfect, and there’s nowhere I’ve not managed to find a free spot to rest at night – whether by traditional wild-camping means or otherwise.

4713539656_5990df0aab_b

1. TALK TO PEOPLE
If you’re unsure about your surroundings, stop and talk to people. The 99 percent will be very happy to help you find a suitable spot for your tent, and it’s always best to have the locals’ blessing if possible – what’s the worst that can happen?

Often you’ll find that this will lead to other social encounters of the most welcome (and welcoming) kind, and this is one of the enviable experiences that few but the independent adventurer have the opportunity to enjoy.

(If there’s nobody around, of course – great. Stealth camping couldn’t be easier.)

2. KNOW WHEN TO STOP
If you’re cycling in open country, allow at least an hour to locate a suitable place to camp, more while you’re learning what works and what doesn’t. If you’re in or approaching a town or city, you need to consider whether you need to stop for anything and if you’ve got time to make it through and out the other side. You’ll also need time to check the area and set up your camp before dark. Spending a few minutes absorbing the vibe of the surroundings is usually a good idea (I’m talking human intuition here, not ‘energies’ or ‘auras’).

Obviously the amount of time you need will depend to a large extent on where you are – sometimes you’ll be spoiled for choice, but if you’re not in a particularly remote area, chances are you’ll need to ride for a while before you find the beach, field, or woods you’re looking for.

If you’re in a busy area, scout a little, have dinner, then sneak off the road to your camping spot under cover of darkness. It’s not ideal, but you’re unlikely to be noticed after dark, unless you wave your stove/headlamp around a lot. This isn’t the ideal situation, but sometime you’ve just got to sleep.

4792344093_079593e08d_b

3. UNDERSTAND YOURSELF BETTER
Yes, there’s stuff living out there – mostly dogs and ants, in my experience (and, if in England, little bunnies). If a dog finds you in your nylon cocoon in the woods, it’ll leave you well alone (after noisily swiping your breakfast if you left it outside). No animal will come to you looking for a fight, because random aggression hasn’t generally been an evolutionarily stable strategy. (If you’re American and about to mention bears, you’re right. You need to know how to camp in bear country.)

And humans don’t roam the fields and forests at night brandishing lethal weapons. Why? Because they’re afraid of humans roaming the fields and forests at night brandishing lethal weapons. Get over it! Once you’ve quashed the nerves, you’ll start seeing potential camping spots everywhere and boring your friends by incessantly pointing them out.

A lot of our survival in the past depended on our overactive imaginations, which were (and still are) great at cooking up wild fantasies of savage beasts and hostile tribes hiding behind every rock. Because of this, and especially once it gets dark, people are not inquisitive of anywhere outside the places they know by daylight.

Now, of course, we’ve slaughtered or contained the man-eating wildlife and have (mostly) got used to living in each other’s company, so it’s safe to chill out. I’ve been hiding my tent just out of sight of roads all over four continents for months on end and have never encountered anything more than an invitation to come and sleep somewhere warmer and/or enjoy a glass or two of the local tipple (oh, and there was a black bear visitor in Washington, but it was no big deal). It’s worth mentioning that my experience is entirely typical of the long-distance bicycle travelers I’ve met.

Actually, you’ll be surprised where you can get away with putting a tent, sleeping rough, or just grabbing a horizontal surface! Sometimes, in “emergencies,” it’s been fun seeing what’s possible in this regard. I’ve slept in bus shelters, inner-city parks, building sites, roadside pullouts, subways, empty garages, gas stations, fishing boats, tramps’ hovels, hotel gardens, under tables, drainage pipes, storage sheds, abandoned buildings – even about 20 feet from a busy main road in full view of anyone who cared to stop and take a look. The last one wasn’t ideal (the mud was really sticky), but I got my head down undisturbed for a few hours.

Of course, if you’re out in the Sahara or crossing the Mongolian steppe, you can put a tent anywhere you please. The world is your campsite – enjoy it.

5431533731_5d0fdeca38_z

4. USE CAMOUFLAGE
Your main sleeping option is your tent, obviously. Try to get one in a suitably inconspicuous shade of green – MSR and Vaude make some lovely colors. This will serve you best in the wide variety of environments you might find yourself in on a world tour, because if it’s green, stuff grows there, and if stuff grows there, people live there, and people don’t see a green tent in a green field at night. Other colors will get you by as well, just not as stealthily.

Take off any shiny labels on the outside of the tent. Remember how useful you thought the reflective bits on your bags and tires would be at night – well, now they’re useful for showing passing drivers exactly where you are. Make sure they’re facing away from the road.

5. GOING TENTLESS
I sometimes travel with a bivvy bag. It’s a lot more inconspicuous than a tent, and I much prefer the feeling of sleeping outdoors than that of being cooped up “indoors.”

For added protection from the elements, you can utilize a poncho as a shelter (or a ‘basha’ in military-speak), if you have a bit of light cord or a few cargo bungees such as the ones that might be strapping bags to your bike. Slide under this with your bivvy bag and you’ll stay dry even in a downpour. For the full British Army experience, you can leave your boots on as well.

6. RELAX, IT’LL BE FINE
The main message is that you should prepare as well as possible and then, when you’re on the road, never give up that conviction that there’s a place waiting for you – all you’ve got to do is find it. That belief is one of the most powerful motivators we have.

Photos by Tom Allen

Camp Notes is a big high five to the fun of sleeping outdoors and all that comes along with it. You know, camping and stuff.

PresentedByThermarest640

 

Tom Allen is a traveler, writer, and adventurer filmmaker based in Armenia. Read more of his work at tomallen.info.
Showing 24 comments
  • Mike
    Reply

    It really is amazing how people will help you find a place to sleep. I had police officer tell us to sleep in a recently closed down camp ground because no one would bother us there. We ended up riding another 20 miles though to get a bit closer to where we were heading to and passed out 2 feet off the trail

  • Todd Lawson
    Reply

    I’ve used this appraoch in more than 40 countries, and there is nothing safer. People will often offer thier homes instead of seeing you sleep on the ground. I’ve made lifelong friendships simple by rocking up on someone’s front yard and asking to camp. The first night turns into eight, and results in true friendship. It’s the only way to go. Ditch the fucking guidebooks, get a map and just go.

  • Jay Long
    Reply

    Have often wondered how doable it is to camp anywhere; this article pretty much sums it up. Great advice and tips.

  • Dan
    Reply

    …except in Ireland where I awoke to gun shots and an irate land owner demanding I vacate his property. That was a 3am wake up I’ll never forget.

  • Matthias
    Reply

    While camping on a meadow in the German countryside I was aproached by a hunter. He told me that I should expect to be shot at. I thought he was joking but the shooting in the middle of the night told me otherwise.
    Guess I should have talked to people XD

  • Dan Murphy
    Reply

    We were in Iceland this summer, and it appeared to be tough to randomly camp there. To be clear, we weren’t camping. We ran into some great Spanish college students the Drangsnes hot tub and got the story from them. They had been caught a few times by rangers. The problem was they had to pay 15 Euro a night – apiece. Not for a campsite, but per person, and there were 4 of them.

    On the up side, they scored a free cod at the local dock.

  • Jon Canuck
    Reply

    Lotta fond memories of sneak camping. Very useful when hitching by car. Ask driver to drop you off where you can just slip into the woods. When you have the chance, talk to locals, they can drop you off near spectacular spots (e.g. waterfront). If there was a chance of being seen, I’d sleep on (not in) my tent, with the fly over me to catch any frost/dew. Of course, no fire if you’re sneak camping. Eat a no-cook meal to get you through to the next day when you move on.

  • Tania
    Reply

    How nice it must be to be a man.

    • Heather
      Reply

      I was thinking the same thing Tania…..

      • Julia
        Reply

        There are quite a few solo women cyclists traveling around the world. Some young, some old and some who have been doing it for years. Of course there are times when it is stressful but by and large not significantly more difficult than for a man and oftentimes local people will be very kind and protective.

      • Jodi Lee
        Reply

        Same three. As a women motorcyclist camper of 22 years, I often cannot do what is suggested in this article when I travel alone. Without getting into details, let’s just say I haven’t face the same dangers when I travel with a male companion than when I travel by myself.

    • Alex
      Reply

      Bering jaded and over it is waaay overrated – and the colors of this world only seem faded in direct relation to the darkness with which your minds eye is shaded. And you made it that way. YOU can change your vision’s prismic range today.

      It seems generally unhelpful to make this sort of comment. It’s true, sure, that women can have a harder time than men, but it’s not impossible, it just requires extra caution. Better would be a request for information on how to do so safely.

      Your comment implies that doing so is literally impossible, which makes other women believe it. Men and women both walk the appalachain alone, can both take solo bike tours. The tone of fear tempered with lack of hope for change becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, and many women never get to experience adventure because of naysayers like you.

      Just consider it.

      • G.G.S.
        Reply

        Many women are sick of being told it’s us and name a quality that’s the problem. If someones minds eye is shaded consider it’s not imagination but experience that did it unlike this author suggests.

        It’s called delusional or magical thinking to think ones attitude is the problem when it comes to targeted physical aggression by others. Nobody was saying we can’t and people do anyway. Every person is subject to possible negative experiences by others and has to consider whether things are worth the risks and rewards. Woman or any group like collectively like to share that it’s lamented we need extra precautions and don’t just get to relax and enjoy things as it should be.

      • El
        Reply

        Please don’t label women as delusional, you literally cannot know what my experience is like, nor that of the author of the comment. I’ve thru-hiked and traveled both by myself and with men, and there is absolutely a difference between how male- and female-presenting people experience sleeping outdoors or asking local people for help. Not to mention how identity affects travelers/hikers who are gender-non-conforming, of color, disabled, etc. Consider how stealth-camping might feel for an undocumented Latina woman near the US/Mexico border. At its core the same thing, and few of these suggestions would work. Are there also undocumented Latina women, and people of all populations, hiking/traveling all across the US (and the world) recreationally? Of course there are.
        Maybe start asking questions and listening rather than jumping in to say we’re lying or unhelpful. Either that or, respectfully, shut up.
        AJ, I love articles like this and would love to see it written from different perspectives as well.

    • El
      Reply

      exactly.

  • Jon Canuck
    Reply

    Tania and Heather. I wasn’t always alone. Sneak camping with a beau or friend made it even funner (however, sometimes we had to be pretty quiet if we were near any settlement). Patrick

  • Kate
    Reply

    Different countries have different rules about where camping is allowed and where it’s not. I know in the U.S. camping on private property without permission from the property owner is highly discouraged and should not be done under any circumstances unless it’s an emergency situation. Property owners have even been sued and held liable if someone illegally trespassing on their property gets injured while on their property (one of the mind boggling things about the American legal system). It happened to my family! So I would really encourage people to be respectful of private property and ask before camping. If you can’t make contact with the property owner, choose a different spot. Most often, when approached politely, people are happy to accommodate.

  • Robert
    Reply

    When I was 15, (I know, too young, but my dad was a refugee at 15, so thought it a good idea) I rode around Western Europe (England, France, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany), initially staying in hostels, but as I grew more confident, often bivying for the night. One of the most memorable was against the wall of an old castle in Brittany overlooking the ocean. Didn’t have any fancy gear,or even a tent, just a sleeping bag, some plastic and a couple of bungees, but it worked well enough. Certainly taught me resilience!

  • Jack
    Reply

    love the part about finding it before dark! i once woke up in my tent one morning thinking i was on a stream bank near the ocean in sicily only to find i was just a few yards from several apt buildings. the old lady hanging laundry woke me up as her pully was squeaky. i think there was a bunch of wine involved the night before…

  • Barbara
    Reply

    =Great article! I’m fortunate to live in a very heavily Forested State here in US that borders 2 other states that are the same. Living 60 miles from the end of the Appalachian Trail I have encountered many through hikers camping on my land (200 acres) and Never have had any problems. In fact I have made friends throughout the years. Often I have shared meals, shower and a ride to the nearest city 60 miles to catch a bus/train/plane back home. I Love Winter camping! No bugs and so peaceful. Heating rocks by the campfire and filling a sack with the hot rocks stuffed inside your sleeping bag works well. I’ve used tent camp stove however it’s possible to stay warm without one if you know some tricks like warmed rocks, Candles (Only while awake) A good below zero sleeping bag, And waterproof clothing. We found out quick that doing chores… Gathering wood, splitting wood ect was what we did during dark (To stay warm as it was too cold to sleep) and slept during the warmest part of the day. A lesson many years ago.

    • jim
      Reply

      love winter camping for all the reasons you gave! never tried the rocks thing but I sometimes heat up water add it to my water bottle and throw it down by my feet. you made me laugh! it is all about the wood. gather, break, burn, rest a bit then repeat.

  • Jon Canuck
    Reply

    Years ago. Early January. Driven for 2 days to get to the Teton area. Got to Rexberg ID close to midnight.
    Located Ricks College; it’s now a branch of Brigham Young U. I found a men’s dorm. Back in the day, many buildings weren’t on lockdown.
    Quietly walked in with my sleeping bag/pillow, found a comfy long couch in an empty student lounge. Startled awake at 6am to the sound of a vacuum cleaner. When I sat up, I surprised the worker. She turned off the vacuum, apologised for waking me, and went way down the hall to clean other areas.
    Moments ago, on wiki, I found this description of BYU-Idaho (quote) Students at BYU-Idaho are required to follow an honor code, which mandates behavior in line with LDS teachings (e.g., academic honesty, adherence to dress and grooming standards, abstinence from extramarital sex, and from the consumption of drugs and alcohol). (end quote)
    I was respectful, quiet, and appreciative (i.e., on good behaviour). I left early. I can honestly say — no one commented about my my clothing and grooming standards.

  • Joanna Hogarth
    Reply

    ? How nice to be a man?? women wild camp too. and I find people are often more generous and less afraid of women.( me) than they might be of a man.
    Getting over the fear, and building the confidence that actually there is no-one out there, people mostly dont wander about in the dark.
    If you do, you are most likely to be alone.

  • Outdoorsygal
    Reply

    Uhhh, not to get graphic but it’s not just safety concerns for women! We have that monthly feminine thing that guys don’t have, and get to carry Xtra stuff around and dispose of it so kind of takes the enjoyment out of adventuring that week! Wish guys could experience so they understand!

Leave a Comment

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This