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Stealth Camping: Enjoying Unestablished Wilderness Sites

Read Time: Approximately 10 minutes

Do you enjoy your outdoor hiking experiences but don’t like the idea of pitching your tent for overnight camping around a shelter that’s full of other hikers? If you’re looking for a more adventurous and primitive way to relax at the end of the day then you need to consider stealth camping.

Stealth camping is the term given to camping at an undeveloped wilderness site, this means finding a spot where there are no official campsites or shelters and setting up camp there. This can be a great way to get away from civilization and enjoy some peace and quiet in nature. 

In this blog post, we’ll discuss what stealth camping is, what you need to know before you go, and some tips for making the most of your experience along with choosing stealth camping locations. You aren’t alone if you like to have quiet at the end of your day, in fact, this is what many stealth campers actually feel.

Green tent backed away from the trail behind a tree grove stealth camping alone

Why Would You Choose to Stealth Camp?

When you are on a long trail you will go through phases where you may want to be around people all the time, then you may want to change and be around people less of the time.

If being around people appeals to you then finding a campsite is simple, there are always proximity sites to shelters. Though for those of us seeking sanctuary, the next best place is a stealth camp either before or after a shelter or in unique view areas!

The big trails, like the Appalachian Trail, are well known for the numerous shelters that exist along the entirety of the trail, these almost operate as hubs for people to meet up and have gatherings at night before sleep, so what is the point of stealth camping?

The point of stealth camping is to rest without as much interruption to your mental peace, and actual peace and quiet. The choice may be to stay close to a nice sunset or sunrise location or just a need or want for some quiet and less rowdy area for better recuperative rest.

Additionally, shelters also aren’t available consistently, nor campsites, so sometimes the only place to sleep is an undeveloped campsite, but please notice rules as some places, like National Parks, have rules against this.

Why Do Thru-Hikers Stealth Camp

Much of this is due to exhaustion, after 8-10 hours of hard hiking your body is typically exhausted and all you want to do is eat, drink, and sleep. Many times this will mean just finding the best place to drop a campsite for the night instead of continuing to push to a shelter.

Thru-hikers may inadvertently enter a potentially good campsite in the dark, and they’re guided only by their headlamps, which are exhausted and tired from miles of hard hiking.

They then just want to camp so they set up camp right next to the trail or beside a water source because they were just trying to get to sleep but this is where they fail the LNT side by pressing for miles and not impact.

This is what causes a slow deterioration on plant life as then the next hiker uses the same spot and this grows until the spot is never likely to recover the same way.

How to Stealth Camp

When choosing to stealth camp the first thing you will want to do is to start thinking and actively looking about 30 minutes before time to set up a camp, typically before sundown with enough time to manage to find the spot and create a camp that is near invisible from the trail.

I would highly suggest eating up to an hour before making camp to ensure you don’t prepare food in your camp and accidentally pull dangerous animals in like bears to your isolated spot.

A proper space should be 200-300 feet from water sources, especially where there are active animal tracks, and away from berry bushes and similar food sources, an animal may choose to use.

While LNT principles matter all the time in the woods, when you choose to stealth camp you need to really micro-manage your impact on the woods around you, avoid fires, do your business with a trowel bury it properly, and more.

Many may call their campsite a “stealth” site but unless you have scouted and moved away from all visible signs of humans you are more likely using a pre-existing campsite that is just less utilized, this is the most common misunderstanding of hikers on the AT.

Quick Keys To Choosing a Site

There are some quick keys to getting a quick spot location and if you focus on following them you should nearly always have a perfect experience free from problems and issues:

  1. Flat Ground – You want to have little to no incline or decline in the area you want to set your shelter up if you use a tent or tarp, hammock users will be suspended so the ground matters little. This is why I am partial to using an ultralight Hummingbird Hammock Long Hammock setup.
  2. Near Water Source – Humans need water, you can go a long time without food but water is as short as a few days or less. Make camp with a reliable water source around you but at least 100-200 feet away for animals, avoid dry camping if not well prepared in advance.
  3. Trail Location – You want to be far enough off the train to not be seen but you also don’t want to get lost and/or turned around. Make sure privacy doesn’t give you a safety hazard, if you leave to use your trowel bring your GPS personal locator beacon so you can always signal where you are!
  4. Avoid Exposure – You want to be cautious if you are setting up on exposed grassland like balds, along with high exposure sites like mountain tops or ridge-lines when not prepared properly for them.
  5. Avoid Widowmakers – This is vital in a forest, there are always dead limbs and trees which can be a fall risk with no wind let alone with high winds. Keep an eye out for cracks in a tree or branches above you without leaves which can be a sign of a hanging dead branch.

If you follow this simple process you should have a successful and relaxing camp!

Stealth Camping Tips For a Thru-Hiker

There are a lot of tips to make the experience better for yourself and others, I would learn as much as possible and look to find how you can enjoy nature but also ensure the next person gets the same quality view and experience as yourself.

Leave Yourself Time to Find a Site

This is the most frequent issue a thru-hiker will find themselves in, you are reaching the end of your day and are exhausted so you just choose to make a site wherever and set up camp.

The issue with this approach is the damage is typically done to the trail and surrounding area if it isn’t a pre-defined camping spot. This gets even worse when the thru-hiker continues to hike into dusk or deep into the night as it becomes hard to locate a good spot with ease.

Instead, you need to understand your time versus the sunset and begin 30 minutes beforehand starting to prepare for a stealth camping session and not push nighttime miles if you can help it unless you plan to end at a shelter or similar specified camp spot.

Stay Mindful of the LNT Principles

In many ways, you could be lazy but you never should be lazy about following LNT principles, when stealth camping these should be adhered to even more so than in established campsites due to the pristine nature.

This means burying your waste properly, avoiding any campfire if possible, working hard to limit your impact to the surrounding area with your gear. All of this may seem like common sense but people will often slack off when they are tired and think “well it’s just me”.

Shelter Color is Important

An often overlooked aspect to working on blending into the environment, choosing the color of your shelter is important to the ease of hiding in the woods. Instead of choosing a bright color or a color that won’t blend into a forest you want to look for those greens, browns, and greys that help you blend in.

Some of the newer patterns for items like hammocks and tarps are amazing at blending into the environment by using military-style camo patterns which are good at helping break up the shape to the eye.

Also when you are stealth camping you want to limit overall light use at night as you will be a beacon in the environment to animals and to humans.

Learn to Hammock Camp

One of my goals this year is to learn how to hammock camp effectively, a hammock helps to disturb far less plant life as you don’t need the open land space without vegetation to set up camp.

This allows them to be set up in many more stealth site locations without the impact to the surroundings including plants and animals.

Plus, this allows you to get much more creative with what trees and objects you use to suspend your hammock from as well as more places where you could set up a unique camp experience!

Understand Location Camping Rules

There are many places where trails enter or border private property or head through national forests or other places that will have their own rules for what is allowed and what isn’t.

You need to understand the rules where you are hiking and what is allowed in the area, typically camping outside of designated areas may require permits, permission, or other form or allowance prior.

Being considerate is a superpower that each of us has, please use it when considering the choice of stealth camping in the woods.

Avoid Hunting Season

If you live in places with hunting seasons you will need to learn and understand any restrictions placed on trails during these time periods, most will have specific campsites only during these times.

Nothing takes the fun out of the hike faster than hearing guns fire and you can’t tell from where. Don’t put camps in unregulated places in these times or you can cause serious injury to yourself or possibly others.

Additional Questions on Stealth Camping

There are many questions that can come up when stealth camping, these are just a few to get you started. If you have any other questions feel free to leave them in the comments below and I will do my best to answer them!

What is the point of stealth camping in a thru-hike?

For some it is to get away from crowds, for others it is about exploring and finding new areas to sleep in for a night. In general, the point of a stealth camp is to get bunkered down for a night’s rest as thru-hikers are always moving and there is no point in staying in a spot longer than a night.

Is stealth camping illegal?

On long-distance trails, there may be parts of the trail where it is prohibited and illegal which park rangers or others will be actively searching for, but for a majority of the trails, stealth camping is not illegal. It is important to do your research before heading out and understand what the rules are for the specific area you will be hiking in.

For example, in these Covid times, the ATC has closed many shelters in the last few years to get thru-hikers and others to camp in dispersed sites away from each other as a safety measure.

How do you stealth camp in a tent?

For camping in nature, you need to find a spot off the trail by around 100-200 feet which have a generally open ground area and are not part of a currently dry riverbed, this will minimize the impact you have on the surrounding environment.

Make sure to avoid camping right next to possible animal food and water sources, and also avoid setting up camp near the trail as this will be more visible.

Final Thoughts on Stealth Camping

Wild camping is an important style of camping while on the trail but there is some care and practices that should be done to always lower the impact you have on the trail and the environment to keep it friendly to the next hikers.

This type of camping can be done in any location that doesn’t have designated campsites, but it’s important to understand what stealth camp rules are before you head out on your next hike.

Stealth camping can range from being illegal at certain times to what some see as an exciting challenge. It’s also something that should not be taken lightly since there are risks involved with choosing this form of backcountry travel over traditional methods like staying in established sites or hotels along the trail.

If you’re considering doing any long-distance hikes anytime soon and want more information on stealth camping, let me know in the comments below!

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John

Tuesday 1st of February 2022

Does weapons come into play when campimt

Josh

Tuesday 1st of February 2022

For a thru-hiker, not normally as most will carry only a small knife or neck knife as you aren't capturing and killing animals.

Shane

Sunday 30th of January 2022

No. This isn't stealth camping. It's dispersed camping. Stealth camping means camping while trying it avoid detection because you aren't allowed to camp there. Try it first before writing about it.

Bhaskar Banerji

Monday 31st of January 2022

@Josh, Am in agreement with you Josh. As soon as one is camping in a non-designated area it requires a degree of stealth. I hiked the ADT 25 years ago and did a fair amount of stealth camping as you call it. Back then we didn't have a term for but this term resonates with me.

Josh

Sunday 30th of January 2022

While you may feel this way, you are not 100% correct though Steve Wallis has made the term more popular on YouTube with your belief as his approach. Section hiker and other websites agree with my content and application, we can agree to disagree on this point down to terminology differences. "Stealth camping is camping at a non-designated campsite, sometimes called 'wild camping' or 'dispersed camping'." - https://sectionhiker.com/stealth_camping/