There is a perception that the biggest risk of stealth camping is breaking the law, but when you camp on public lands or on property owned by people known to be friendly to camping, it’s often perfectly legal. That doesn’t eliminate all the hazards, of course.
Whether you call it stealth camping or by the illegal-sounding name guerrilla camping, sleeping in the rough outside of designated camping areas can sometimes be legal in other circumstances too — like in parks that have no curfew.
Regardless of the legality, here are eight things you can do to make stealth camping safer.
1. Never go inside a gate or fence. In addition to running the risk of trespassing, fences are often erected to contain livestock. You don’t want to wake in the morning to prodding from a herd of inquisitive bison.
2. Even outside fences, avoid areas near animal tracks. If an animal has recently passed an area, it could come back — or a predator could come by looking for it. If you see animal tracks, leave that area for them and choose someplace else for yourself.
3. Never camp near a “No Trespassing” sign. You can be fairly sure your stealth camping adventure will be illegal if you see a sign, but there’s a safety risk too. The kind of people who care enough about private property rights to posts signs are often willing to wield weapons to protect what’s theirs.
4. Avoid low areas. Despite the temptation to camp in the clearing created by a dry riverbed or creek bed, avoid these as well as areas where you can see erosion or other signs of water. A nighttime rain upstream could flood your campsite before you know what’s happening.
5. While reflectors on bikes and backpacks make you easier to see on roadways, cover them while stealth camping. A headlight or flashlight could catch one of your reflectors and get someone’s attention, bringing you unwanted attention.
6. If you know you’ll be wild camping, carry dark colored backpacks, tents and other supplies, preferably in green, brown or camouflage colors, that will blend into your surroundings. Even then, hide these things behind bushes or with branches and leaves whenever possible.
7. Have an escape plan. Another camper, a wild animal or a curious motorist could make it necessary for you to leave quickly, especially if the person or animal intends to do you harm. Rehearse in your mind how you can gather you things in one armload and be on your way. Consider what you can leave behind if attacked too.
8. Remember to leave your campsite as you found it when you leave. If you were overlooked by an official during the night, leaving a mess could get you into trouble since littering is almost always illegal. Even camping-friendly landowners don’t take kindly to abuse of their property.
Stealth camping doesn’t have to be illegal or particularly dangerous. There’s always some risk involved in sleeping rough, but the risk could be worth it to you for the cost savings or simply for the experience itself. If you plan to do some stealth camping, you owe it to yourself to at least do it safely.