Stealth camping on bike tour, this is perhaps a bit of a controversial topic. Some people believe that it is wrong to camp on someone’s property without permission. I can’ really argue that point. But the reality is that sometimes stealth camping is your only option and other times there is no one to ask. Debating the merits of stealth camping is largely a no-win game. Those of us that choose to stealth camp are not going to stop just because another human being disagrees with stealth camping. Hopefully this post will help you with stealth camping while on bike tour
For me if the area is not surrounded by some sort of fence and there is no No Trespassing signs then the property is fair game for stealth camping.
Stealth Camping by definition for cycle touring
Finding a place to set up camp for the night anywhere other then a designated campsite that hopefully or ideally is out of sight from people.
For someone new to bike touring or stealth camping, stealth camping can turn into an exercise in paranoia and sleepless nights. I still remember my first time (somewhere near the Greyhound bus terminal) in Thunder Bay Ontario back in 2011. I thought a million eyes were on me the whole night. Like anything, after a while it becomes easier and easier.
Examples of crappy stealth camping
Ultimately the idea is to be camping where people can’t see you or be noticed. Sometimes easier said then done but if you keep pedalling eventually a location (ideal or not ideal) will present it’s self.
My stealth camping background for my current bike ride and to date
Currently I have biked 16,850 km’s over 394 days spending 218 of those nights in a tent. Over a dozen of those nights were camping in a host’s backyard and about a dozen nights at campgrounds. Which leaves me close to 180+ nights of stealth camping! Wow, when I look at that number it seems huge.
One of my favorite sites outside Hoh Rainforest Washington
My current experience is based on coast to coast in Canada and down the Pacific coast in the USA (Washington, Oregon, California and also Nevada). My route will bring me through 22 more countries moving south. I will surely write a few updated stealth camping blog posts as I travel south.
Stealth Camping on bike tour during the winter
I started this bike ride on November 12, 2019 in St John’s Newfoundland and biked 4,900 km’s through that winter. A few times if there was a lot of snow accumulation on the ground I would often camp right in parking lots.
Trying to push a fully loaded touring bike over snow or through a massive snow drift is virtually impossible. I realize that sounds a bit crazy and I don’t necessarily recommend it. I guess I figured who was going to realistically give me a hard time in a tent with a bike in the middle of winter in January? And nobody ever did.
Parking lot camping in Quebec
As mentioned, I don’t necessarily recommend this. In a parking lot you are very much at risk of being hit by a car. And if a car drove into your tent you are likely dead. Some thoughts though. I generally looked for a back corner or where the dumpsters were kept. Make sure you are no where near in the way of the garbage trucks. Never camp in a parking lot if they are calling for any kind of snow. Parking lots are plowed during the middle of the night.
50 ft off a rarely travelled road & behind a gas station / Nova Scotia
A good idea also in the winter is I looked for gazebos in city parks. Once again, I was never bothered by anyone. A few times I would even ask a local business such as a gas station or restaurant if they minded if I camped behind their building. It’s amazing how accommodating people are in the middle of winter.
Under a gazebo in a Newfoundland city park
This is how I camped through much of Atlantic Canada. Like I said, some of it’s not recommended. It’s just what I did. I guess the other point is if you are camping in the dead of winter, I also don’t believe that it is necessary to be completely out of sight (at least in Canada).
The easiest places to stealth camp on bike tour so far
The Canadian Prairies and the desert in the south west USA.
200 ft from the entrance of Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. My bike is leaned against the park boundary fence, my tent is against a farmers fence and the road is less than 100ft to the left
When it came to stealth camping on the Canadian Prairies it was not stealth by any means.
I camped on the shoulder of the highway/road right beside the farmers fields. Usually, a 100 ft or further from the road. And ideally you are not on the TransCanada Highway due to traffic noise. But on whatever road I was on I took advantage of a farmer’s field access driveway off the highway because it was flat and not concave like the ditch. And I would find a flat area off the driveway (you don’t want to block any farming equipment) but on the ditch side of the farmers crops. Never on the crops! I was right out in the open and I never got bugged ever. I also never camped near the farmer’s homestead. As to not bother him or worry about any dogs on the farm. The good news is on the prairies or badlands most farm homesteads are 10 miles or further apart.
Only a few hundred feet from the TransCanada Hwy
The desert is another awesome area to stealth camp, but once again not very stealthy. Ideally, I would find some kind of off-road lane into the desert and follow it a ways. Or if I could not find a lane I would push my bike as far off the road into the desert as I felt comfortable. In the desert ideally you want to find a place before it gets dark because you do not want to push your bike over or through any cacti. If you can find a dirt lane than you can generally get far enough off the main road to be stealth. But not necessarily from the people that use these off-road roads.
Not a lot of cover in the desert. Also not a lot of people either
On the prairies or desert, it’s more about traffic noise than stealth. I don’t worry so much about how visible I am. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be more visible than necessary. But think about the people driving past you. Do you think they care? Do you think if a car driving 65 miles an hour/100 km’s an hour sees you that it will turn around to ask you what you are doing? Would you? Of course not. EVERYONE has far more important things to do. NOBODY cares.
Stealth camping beside the road in Saskatchewan
The reason I say the prairies and the deserts are the easiest simply because regardless where I was, the second I decided to call it a day I generally camped right there.
I love desert camping
Where it gets harder to stealth camp on bike tour
The closer to town that you get, the more people, the more fences and the more “No Trespassing” signs. I have too much gear to hop a fence and I respect No Trespassing signs. It’s all about keeping your eyes peeled for that one opportunity or spot. I have pedalled an extra 20 km’s in the dark desperate for that first ideal spot. That’s just the deal and in the dark it gets harder and harder to find those ideal spots with out passing a bunch of potential spots because you can’t see them in the dark.
Seeming the most common signs in the Pacific US
I don’t think I have ever tried to stealth camp in a city? Usually I headed out of city as far as I need to, to find the right spot. Hold on, sorry I camped in a wood lot behind a church in San Francisco about 700 meters from the Golden Gate Bridge. Pretty crazy eh? In cities look for wood lots and wooded areas.
About 700 meters from the Golden Gate Bridge in SF
The USA is a whole separate category all in itself. Probably one of my biggest anxieties biking through the US specifically along the Pacific Coast is how challenging it is to find a new place to camp every night. The USA is the “No Trespassing” capital of the world. Realistically 95% of every property is fenced with no trespassing signs everywhere. And there are realistically more “no tenting/camping” signs in America than street lights. Virtually every evening was a challenge. But as you can see from my number of nights stealth camping I did find a place.
Both these spots in California sucked balls
The West Coast
The thing about the US, in particular the west coast is the US has a huge homeless people problem and a huge drug problem. And all the homeless drug addicts ride bikes and live in tents. So the minute that you are spotted camping on private property the police are called. In Canada I never had a run with authorities. So far to date I have had 4 run in’s with the authorities in the US.
My first run with the police at 5:30 am in Washington behind a Walmart. I was required to exit the property
In US cities or towns you are not welcome and along most of the actual coast you are not allowed to camp.
If I had to in Canada I would almost camp anywhere unless it said “No Trespassing” in the US I make every effort not to be seen.
In the US at the very least make sure that you won’t be spotted until morning. There was one night that it was virtually impossible to find a place to camp. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a baseball field with nothing around it. I never saw any “No Trespassing” signs. So I camped behind the dugout and the next morning while breaking camp a cop showed up. Apparently, I was spotted and he asked me what I was doing. I told him and that I was almost packed up. He was more interested in my story and told me to have a nice day.
Behind a baseball diamond in Oregon. My second visit by the police in the US
The one thing I will say is generally any of my run-ins with authorities have been cool. They are just doing their job because someone called and are usually more interested in your story. It is however very unfortunate how quickly they are called or how difficult it is to find a place to stealth camp in the US.
I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to stealth camp if you have more than 1 tent (cycling companions) but everything is possible I suppose.
The one other thing I will say about camping on the Pacific Coast USA is that most hiker/biker campsites are about $10 a night. That generally wont break the bank, a lot of the parks are cool to visit and they have a pick-nick table and facilities. Not bad for $10.
What you should be looking for when searching for a site
- Wooded areas. Big or small. Sometimes the smallest clump of trees will be your only option
- Abandoned lane ways or road ways
- Side gravel roads
- ATV or bike trails
- Unexplained openings into a forest
- Fields that may have some tree or bush regrowth
A field with some regrowth – California Above the road – Oregon
- Fence lines. Sometimes the fence line is far enough back that there is room between the fence and the road
- Sections of road or highway where the shoulder/hill rises well above the road way
- Sections of road or highway where the shoulder/valley drops well below the road way
- Piles of debris on lots
- abandoned properties
- Churches or small town community centers that are barely ever used
- Logging roads
Behind debris – Oregon Behind a baseball diamond in Quebec
Some other suggestions or thoughts
Many blog posts or comments from people finding a camping spot suggesting fire departments, police departments or churches etc.
I personally have never used fire or police department properties. But I have stealth camped at churches and sports fields on occasion. School fields on the weekend is possible. When you notice as many “No Trespassing” signs as I do and being an avid stealth camper you tend to feel uncomfortable asking to camp in a more open area such as a fire station. I have learned that eventually, even if it takes a few hours of pedalling I will eventually find a place. While I prefer to not bike in the dark if I have to, technically the longer I bike the more kilometers I get under my belt that day.
Behind a hockey arena in Charlottetown PEI
Don’t be surprised if other people find you (unintentionally). I have camped down many an abandon road and 5 minutes later hunters walk right past me.
In the middle of no where hunters walked by
Those super amazing awesome with a million dollar view campsites are the exception not the rule. Sometimes you get lucky but more often than not you don’t.
Every once in a while you get lucky with the million dollar view
Some rules and tips to live by when stealth camping on bike tour
- Don’t ruin it for others by leaving garbage or damage anything. Clean up after yourself and all existing garbage. You will be surprised how much garbage you find where there shouldn’t be any.
- If you are caught and asked to leave then do so with out argument. Pointing out any garbage that you have collected from others doesn’t hurt either. And politely feigning ignorance also doesn’t hurt.
- Try to avoid camping in an area where you just recently past a property with dogs. You don’t want to be kept awake by a barking dog all night and you don’t want the dog owner curious why his dogs wont shut up.
- It helps if your tent isn’t super colorful. That being said I have found most tents to be manufactured with rather colorful colors. I do have an ultra light thin grayish green tarp if I need to wrap my tent.
- Keep your head lamps on dim and pointed downwards and try to avoid using at all possible.
- Leave campfires for the campground
- Always be scouting. You may need to go into town for supplies but if things run late it might make sense to backtrack 2-3 miles for that ideal site.
- Stay off actual paths. If there is a path that means people travel through there. It doesn’t mean don’t camp in the area. It means don’t be ignorant so people can’t respectfully pass by.
Pretty bright colors on my tent
Some more good rules
- Consider setting your alarm clock. The later you leave in the morning the greater the chance of being discovered.
- Make sure that you are not going to be locked behind a gate.
- In certain cities count on running into homeless people
- Expect to get a ticket if caught in a State Park
- Be aware of flash flooding through dry desert river beds.
- Be aware of incoming tides if camping on the beach. I almost learned this one the hard way.
The tide was coming in quick
- Before you get everything inside your tent that night – run your hands over the tent floor feeling for rocks or sharp branches that might damage your tent floor. Rarely is the ground perfectly flat or with out ground debris when stealth camping. It’s far easier to deal with these issues before everything is in your tent.
- Use your gut. It’s your best friend during stealth camping.
Stealth camping is not for everyone. On the flip side I would not let the fear of stealth camping prevent you from doing so. Sometimes it’s about leaving your comfort zone to simply exercise your courage muscles. Happy stealth camping!
A lucky spot. Stealth camping in the suburbs of LA
The “what you don’t see” blog post
Everything you ever wanted to know about what to pack and how much to pack on your bike tour