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.
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.
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.
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