Stealth camping might be your thing if you’re travelling on a budget and you don’t mind spontaneity in your adventures. And no, it’s not illegal! (If you do it right)
Camping is a fun and alternative way to arrange your sleep accommodations while travelling. It’s generally pretty cheap (reserving a camp spot can be anywhere from 0-20 USD), and if you have the right spirit, it’s extremely refreshing. But what happens if you can’t find a good camp spot? What if you’re in a more urban area, and you don’t think it’s worth buying a hotel room for an 8 hour sleep? What if you simply can’t be bothered to plan out your sleeping accommodations as you go because you’re just winging it?
The answer is… stealth camping!
What is Stealth Camping, though?
Stealth camping is a more spontaneous, secretive way to camp. It’s spontaneous because it doesn’t take too much planning, and you can figure it out as you go. It’s secretive because (like any sleeping accommodation) some level of privacy is warranted, but you have to be creative.
With this type of camping, you usually scope out a place to camp which is not a designated camping spot. This can be either in your car or in your tent. Then, you try to blend in as much as possible to give yourself privacy. Stealth camping is extremely minimal, almost the true definition of “bumming it” while you travel.
- Driving off a dirt road by a tree line, hiking half a mile into the forest, setting up camp
- Parking incognito among other cars in a residential area
- Hiking the Appalachian Trail, skipping the designated camping sites and creating your own site where you’d rather like to stop
- Parking at a Walmart parking lot (actually this is what RVs and truck drivers do all the time, it’s a well-known “boondocking”-friendly store)
But is it legal?
Sometimes, no. Many times, yes. Most of the time, you won’t really know unless it’s blatantly obvious that you shouldn’t be there.
Some states are really cracking down on the “not-so-smart” stealth campers. Take California, for example. Police are ticketing due to safety concerns along the Big Sur because people are camping on the edge of cliff and falling off. Although I understand the appeal, it’s just too risky if you want to be a successful stealth camper.
Obvious ways to know if stealth camping in your area is illegal/bad idea:
- There’s a “No Trespassing” sign within 100 feet of your camp
- You’re clearly in someone’s yard or driveway
- The neighborhood has signs that declare “Neighborhood Watch”
- You’ve jumped a fence to get to your desired spot
- There’s a sign that says “No Overnight Parking”
- An easy Google search states that sleeping in your car in this state/country is illegal
- There’s a lot of trash, traces of drugs, or presence of junky/abandoned cars in the area
- There’s a hunting zone/industrial area nearby
- Your gut is telling you that the area feels unsafe or unstable.
Most of this list is straightforward. It’s basically down to common sense and knowing your surroundings.
When you camp somewhere overnight, you’ll want as much privacy as possible. How awkward would it be if you decide to park in the first few stalls of a Walmart parking lot, wake up in the morning, and make direct eye contact with a guy loading his groceries in the car next to you. Best to avoid those encounters because… well, stealth camping can be a bit taboo.
To blend in or get privacy, you have to get creative with your camping. Nestle yourself between other cars, curtain your van windows, or shelter your camping site behind trees. Then dip in the morning once you wake up.
Is my Stealth Camping going to disturb the peace?
I’m a huge proponent for responsible travel. I would not promote stealth camping if there wasn’t a proper way to do it without bothering nature, businesses, or communities. If you’re stealth camping and you’re bothering your surroundings, you’re doing it wrong.
How to be a responsible stealth camper:
- “Leave No Trace”: Leave your camping spot exactly as you left it
- Clean after yourself, no trash left behind
- Be quiet… for the nature and for the communities
- Don’t sleep anywhere or do anything illegal while camping (refer to previous list)
Stealth Camping is NOT for everyone
Stealth camping is definitely not for everyone. If you don’t mind living minimally and bumming it for a few nights, stealth camping could be for you.
If you’re extremely bothered by peeing in the forest, it’s not for you.
If you have an extensive beauty routine every morning, it’s most definitely not for you.
If you need to plan your days better during your trip, it’s not for you.
If you’re nervous about the whole concept, it’s not for you.
What’s stealth camping like?
@adam1padawan (IG) visited South Florida, stealth camping all the way.
He shared his personal experience with me – here it is below:
“It was FUN and people should DO IT. That’s it. [JK]
We car camped in South Florida for 10 total days. Found a good free twin mattress on Facebook marketplace, which fit perfectly in the back of our rental SUV, and we bought some cheap blankets and pillows. Majority of the nights were spent in Walmart parking lots, even though not every Walmart allows overnight camping. Typically the Walmart in smaller cities/suburbs will allow it.
We only got kicked out of Walmart once and it was within the first 30min of going to bed. The security guard just redirected us to the 24hr Golden Corral down the street. He said to park in the back of the lot but avoid being the one lone car. We would look for other car campers, RV’s and motorhomes to be around. Safety in numbers and it looks way less “suspicious”.
We would hang up a few towels over the windows for privacy or if there was a bright streetlight but of course you want to be as discrete as possible. We also got away with sleeping in a few hotel parking lots. We just parked on the side/back and tried to blend in next to the guests cars. Then we would wash up and brush our teeth literally wherever, usually in the parking lot (lol). Buy a gallon jug of water and do the fill up stations at grocery stores!
Saved a ton of money and we had everything we needed in the car. The only downside is not being able to shower. We managed to stay a few nights at a friend’s house but also took advantage of being next to the ocean and the beach showers to rinse off.”
If stealth camping IS for you, go try it out! Comment below with your own experiences, too!