Stealth Camping

Can you spot the cyclist camped beneath this tree? No? That's because there isn't one. There is, however, a leopard snoozing on a fork of the branch on the upper left. Isn't camouflage wonderful?

One of the questions that was put to me most often when I was cycling through the Australian bush all those years ago was: ‘how do you sleep at night?’ To which I used to answer: “Very well, thank you.” Which was absolutely true. Anyone would sleep well after a hard day’s pedalling a heavily loaded touring bike a hundred and something miles down a lonely ribbon of outback highway that quivered in the heat. But of course that wasn’t quite what they meant, and I knew it; they were referring to the picaresque business of sleeping wild along the roadside.

I was reminded of that a lot this past fortnight in the far north of Norway, where every day I felt myself growing wistful at the sight of so many touring cyclists, all loaded up for distant places, pedalling the beautiful winding highways along the fjords. Up here in Norway camping rough is simplicity itself – it’s perfectly legal. The Scandinavians take a pretty healthy view of the freedom of the road. You just pull over and pitch your camp in the woods or by the shore, wherever, although of course you’d still want to be sensible and discrete about it.

For that matter this sort of thing is pretty simple in the Australian outback too, even if the law is not on your side: there is generally nobody around for a hundred miles. You just pull off the road, set your camp well back in the spinifex scrub so you’re out of sight of any cars or road trains that may pass during the night, and settle in. You’re as safe as houses.

The tricky part is doing it in those less enlightened and more populated places, which is to say, alas, most of the rest of the civilized world. Technically speaking, camping free and easy along the roadside is illegal. Actually, there’s no ‘technically’ about it, it is against the law, plain and simple, authorities the world over taking a dim view of this sort of thing. That said, if you possess the moral flexibility to clear this legal hurdle, trespass and vagrancy are among the easier misdemeanours to get away with, especially if you are on a bicycle. Be discrete, develop a taste for sombre coloured camping gear and a soldier’s (or a burglar’s) eye for cover and you can vanish like a deer among the shadows.

The best thing is to get yourself onto a quiet country road, long about the shank of the evening, when the light is fading; when there is still enough glow in the sky for you to see by, but motorists are starting to flick on their headlights. Then it is perfect. The idea is for you to be pedalling along in a leisurely manner, easy and nonchalant, full of innocent purpose, as though you had a destination in mind and worthy people expecting you, and not at all looking like a man scheming against the public order.

Which, of course, you are.

Your innocent eyes are looking for concealment, a break in the roadside greenery into which you can push your bicycle and disappear. It should never be near a town park, or picnic ground or a roadside rest area – in short, no place where anyone, passing troublemaker or night patrolman, is likely to expect an illegal camper to pitch his tent, or to pull over themselves to party or sit and eat donuts. Randomness is your friend. Pick an anonymous place along the roadside, chosen by chance, and you are most unlikely to be sprung.

Once you’ve spotted such a place, you want to give a swift, searching but oh-so-casual glance up and down the road to be sure nobody is coming and that you’re out of the line of sight of any farmhouse windows. Then, if the coast is clear, you dismount at a glide and head briskly into the tall timber, going deep as you can and well out of sight. Find yourself a nice level spot, and stake out your tent or tarp or bivvy bag. I tend to prefer lighter, lower-slung tarps and bivvy bags myself, done in dark blues, or greens or purples. I lay the bike down, taking care if I am close to the road that any reflectors on the bike won’t catch the beams of any passing cars’ headlights. If in doubt, I hang some dark clothes over them.

I am here to sleep. I don’t build fires or cook, don’t show any lights. I’ll either have had my dinner back along the road somewhere, or sit up nibbling something – cheese and biscuits, fruit and nuts – that doesn’t require cooking. I’ll turn in early and be gone before sun-up, with no one the wiser. Stolen beer, they say, tastes the sweetest, and so it would seem. Nothing beats that quiet thrill in the morning when you push your bicycle back up onto the road and set off once again, making your getaway in the dewy dawn when all the world’s asleep. It works every time.

The woods may indeed be full of wardens, as Jack Kerouac laments at the end of Lonesome Traveler, but that doesn’t mean you have to meet them.

  10 comments for “Stealth Camping

  1. Ron Clark
    July 10, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Good article, Roff, and good information to know. Stealth camping in the US has the added danger of lots of guns, and the potential for lots of paranoia about “who’s that hippie dude camped down by the road?” I wouldn’t let it dissuade me from camping, but it is in the back of my mind. I once camped in Apache National Forest in Arizona; because I was on my Harley, I couldn’t get far enough off the main road to be invisible. Enough people on the road stopped and stared at me that I finally had to pack up and move to a different location. No doubt they were just curious, but it still creeped me out, and I listened to my instincts. You know better than anyone how vulnerable you can feel when you’re camped by yourself in an isolated spot.

    • Roff Smith
      July 10, 2012 at 1:44 pm

      Instincts are always wise to follow.

      One nice thing about cycling is that your bicycle is small enough to tuck under your arms and carry into the woods, if need be.

      Of course a Harley is great for getting away in a hurry…

  2. July 10, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Another great article. I am in the middle of reading yor book, and just got to the bit last night, when you camped in the middle of daftness and a storm is brewing and you fall asleep in the middle of it! Around about the same time you where doing that I was embarking on a dangerous adventure…getting married for the first time. It would have been safer, cheaper and more fun to cycle round the world on a unicycle, upon a saddle of barbed wire, gargling with battery acid.

    • Roff Smith
      July 10, 2012 at 2:00 pm

      I remember that night vividly.

      I take your point on your adventure – I had an adventure like that once too. In fact, I concluded that particular adventure just before I set off into the outback.

  3. July 12, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    Just back from my “summer” if you can call it that trip with my DH of forty years. I was lucky to find him back in my teens and we deliberately developed our love of cycling together. We did wild camp one night, in a small park but out of the way tucked away in a corner out of sight of prying eyes. Unfortunately , the weather has been so bad here in the north that we had to resort to B&Bing before deciding to come home. Even then we cycled through floods so it’s been a real adventure. More wild camping would have been great but still there’s next time.

    • July 13, 2012 at 2:51 pm

      My wife and I did a cycling trip this year for the first time ever, along the canal tow path from Reading to Bath and back along the roads to North Oxfordshire. We did stealth camping too….in Hotels. Very nice showers and comfortable beds after a long cycle, that’ll do for me. We decided to stay at the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath, you should have seen the concierge face when we turned up to check in and then asked him to park the bikes for us. I wish I could have photographed it.

      • Roff Smith
        July 13, 2012 at 3:18 pm

        Stealth camping in a hotel? Hiw’d you get in and out with nobody seeing? :-)

        I had my bicycle valet parked at the Windsor Hotel once, in Melbourne – the Windsor being one of Australa’s most famous Grand Hotels. God, it was fun. They were great about it. Somewhere I do hav a photo of the liveried doorman leading it away…

        • July 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm

          Nice, I like your style.

          • July 14, 2012 at 10:28 pm

            I have just read that bit in your book, where you went to the Windsor hotel, it’s right at the end of the book, which I have just finished, it was a great read, gripping, how the hell you did that trip I’ll never know, it was brave, and mental all at once.

          • Roff Smith
            July 16, 2012 at 9:25 am

            I’m really glad you enjoyed the book.

            The trip was without question the best thing I ever did. Even today, all these years later, I still miss the easy going freedom I enjoyed in those months on the road and the sheer simplicity of life.

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