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.