Stealth Camping 101

“Stealth-ing it” has become a controversial subject over recent years within the outdoor community. Some people view it as an illegal activity, but others maintain that this rather unconventional form of camping leaves a minimal environmental footprint. In this post, I will cover the fundamentals of stealth camping, share some of my own experiences, and give some tips and tricks that may be useful to you.

What is Stealth Camping, Benefits, and Where to Go

Stealth camping, also called ‘dispersed primitive camping’ and ‘backcountry camping’, is the practice of melting within the landscape to spend an overnighter or even several days outdoors, observing Nature closely without disturbing it, and then leaving without a trace. Many of the techniques employed for this activity are derived from military procedures used by the Special Forces when entering a hostile area behind enemy lines to remain undetected.

So then, what are the benefits of going stealth? You feel a sense of solitude, refreshment, and an immersion in your natural surroundings that you just cannot get at your standard campground. According to the Leave No Trace organisation, careful planning and ethical management of your dispersed campsite leaves a positive effect on the environment, allowing future outdoorsmen/women who may visit the area to share in your enjoyment…and hopefully, this will create a lasting trust and respect for the landscape and wildlife for generations. An added bonus is that, more often than not, stealth camping is free, and that sure beats spending money on a cooped-up campground space that is most uncomfortable and not at all secluded. I should mention that here in Connecticut, many state parks and forests charge upwards of $17 per person per night (and more if you are not a resident) for such miserable accommodations.

I was very disappointed to see that a stealth camping discussion thread posted a few years ago on BCUSA was locked by the moderators, and the original poster banned. I remember one mod commented, “We don’t talk about illegal activities here”, shortly before the thread was shut down. Contrary to the naysayers and critics, stealth camping is NOT necessarily illegal. All states in New England, for example, have locations that actually encourage the practice –

Massachusetts

Rhode Island

Vermont and Green Mountain National Forest USFS

New Hampshire and White Mountain National Forest USFS

Maine and Percival Baxter State Park

Connecticut

Open space (undeveloped land) locations that permit public access provide another option to be on the lookout for. As for private land, I would recommend steering clear unless you have an agreement with the landowner or if public access is permitted (a lot of national forests, state parks, and national parks will have portions of private land). If you intend on stealth camping on private land that is marked appropriately with “no trespassing” signs, do so at your own risk. Respect others’ property – if you want to camp there, contact the landowner and inquire.

Review a map to help plan your outing ahead of time, and be sure to take it with you if you’re unfamiliar with the area. I prefer the details of a topo map, but a zoning map would probably be more helpful for locating public open space areas. Study it closely and take note of any trails or walkways – some places require that a stealth camp be set up a minimum of 200 ft/61 m from any path. Try to pick a secluded spot on the map that shows dense vegetation. Once you’ve picked your site, I would advise scouting the area thoroughly…if there are any signs of recent human activity (footprints, trash, broken vegetation, etc.), it’s best to move on to another, less intruded location. If you intend on stealth camping in an area for several days, choose a new site for each day.

**Be responsible, be considerate, and be aware of the legalities and any restrictions of the area you choose**

Before You Head Out… Camp Like a Ghost, Move Like a Shadow

Once you’ve picked your spot on the map and reviewed the regulations, now’s the time to go through your kit. I try to pack light and bring only what I need, but I’ll leave that decision up to you. But think about how you can maximise your capabilities of going unnoticed, and consider the 3 C’s – Cover, Camouflage, and Concealment.

Firstly, Cover and Camouflage:

Ideally, your shelter, whether you use a poncho, bivi, tarp, tent, or tarp and hammock, should be an Earth-toned colour so you blend in easily with your surroundings and not stand out. My DD 3×3 tarp is coyote brown, and I’ve found that colour works very well year-round. You can further break up the lay of your setup by using a camo net. Shelters with a camouflage pattern are also effective, depending on the type of camo and the environment. Flecktarn seems to work just about anywhere forested, especially in a coniferous woodland, while an ACU pattern tends to stand stand out a bit. Feel free to experiment :).

IMGP4666

Here I made ACU camo work by setting up my Mil-Tec poncho against a boulder (middle of photo). As you can see, it blends in very well – the shelter looks like another part of the rock.

It is advisable to pitch your shelter low to the ground to reduce its silhouette. You can then further camouflage your site by resting downed branches, moss, and other natural materials on and around your shelter to mirror the landscape.

IMGP6451

Can you see my tarp? Notice that I am using the undergrowth of Mountain Laurel as cover, and the colour of my tarp helps to camouflage my camp. And yes, you can indeed stealth camp in the winter. I will discuss that a bit later in the post.

As for clothing, I would NOT recommend full camo out on the trail, as that will attract attention to yourself, and passers-by will ask you questions…save it for off-trail bushwhacking and when you reach your chosen site, if you so choose. A good strategy is to “look like the locals” and mimic their appearance so as to be inconspicuous to passers-by. For example, if hikers frequent the trails, it would be a good idea to wear typical hiking clothes, perhaps a brightly coloured, lightweight synthetic jacket, something you can take off and easily stuff into the pack when you make your turn-off. If the area is a popular fishing spot, wear a fishing vest. Otherwise, Earth-toned (not camo) clothing will be sufficient both on and off the beaten path pretty much anywhere.

Onto Concealment:

Staying concealed is vital to successful stealth camping. It is suggested to enter your location around dusk (or better yet, at night), and to pack up and leave just before dawn breaks, so you can go in and move out with the least chance of attracting unwanted attention. If you have a head torch or some other means of lighting your way around these times, use only a red or green setting with a low lumen output…a white light can be seen for miles. Otherwise, use your night vision. However, this is just a general rule…as long as you enter and exit when human activity is low, you should be fine. Sooner or later you will eventually pass by a few people on the trail. Be polite, and if they ask questions, be truthful. If they start getting nosy, just say that you’re training for an upcoming hike.

According to the second principle of Leave No Trace, you should travel much of your route on designated trails to concentrate your footprints. Walk through obstacles such as muddy sections or puddles instead of going around them. Off trail hiking is just the opposite, with a few added suggestions. When you make your turn-off to bushwhack, you should keep your voice down (no talking, only whispering), turn your cellphone to vibrate, and tread slowly and softly so as to not disturb wildlife. It is best to walk on durable surfaces, such as rocks, whenever possible, and not to break vegetation. If you do leave tracks, brush them out. We humans have a compelling curiosity to explore new paths and follow tracks…therefore, you should be careful not to create new trails. This not only helps to keep you concealed, but it ensures that no shortcuts are created that others will inevitably follow.

IMGP6249

In the winter with snow on the ground, you will leave foot or snowshoe prints no matter what, even on packed trails. However, if the snow cover is relatively old (a week or more), you can read a trail and make a decent estimate as to when the last person hiked through.

IMGP6439

As you can see, this trail is relatively inactive. Only one person came by, and that was the day before. Fortunately, not too many people will be out hiking in the winter, except for short distances. I recommend that you make your off-trail route to your stealth location as difficult for anyone to follow as possible using terrain and foliage to your advantage. Go through thick undergrowth (carefully, taking precautions not to get shredded by thorns) whenever possible and up and over hills. Patches of bare ice including frozen lakes, rivers, and ponds, provide a durable surface to walk on that won’t leave noticeable tracks, but take extreme caution and walk close to the shore with aggressive grip snowshoes or ice trekkers on your boots. Use a staff or trekking poles for support and to test the ice.

Of course, all this means that you should head out much earlier – a shorter span of daylight combined with trudging through the snow will eat up much of your time. You can, however, use Nature to your advantage in another way, by deliberately setting out a day prior to an expected snowstorm. I’m not saying at all that you should hang around during a blizzard, but fresh snow can conceal your tracks very effectively if the accumulation is high enough (4 inches/10 cm or more).

Cooking is something else to consider, both with the meals you bring and the method you choose of preparing them (if needed). Since going stealth calls for a low profile and low environmental impact, it simply would not do to build a large fire. An open, above-ground fire is like a beacon – it’s a dead giveaway of your presence and can be seen and smelled from quite a distance away, and may attract unwanted attention. Portable wood burning stoves are a more convenient option, but again, the smell and sight of smoke may compromise your secrecy. This is not to say that you shouldn’t have a fire of any sort, just be aware that it will stand out. It is therefore generally recommended to cook your meals far from your camp setup (preferably ½ mile/.8km or more). As sound can travel a long way and reveal your position, try to avoid chopping or splitting/batoning your firewood. Backpacking stoves are a much better option because there’s no smoke, the flames are small with concentrated heat, and there are no ashes to clean up. DIY alcohol stoves are ultralight, cost next to nothing, and are efficient for 3 season use, though they’re not the best choice for winter with temperatures below freezing. Esbit tablets, on the other hand, work well for all seasons.

I often opt for clif bars, nuts and berries, or meals that have been prepared beforehand, so there is no cooking involved. But during the cold months, a hot cup of tea or soup sure is welcome to start and end the day. Since January, I have been experimenting with a new (to me) method of heating meals, using a fire can.

IMGP6464

A fire can is simply corrugated cardboard stuffed into a tuna or water chestnut can and filled with paraffin wax. They produce minimal smoke and will burn up to 3 hours or more, depending on the size of the can, and the fire itself is contained…however, they can be quite heavy (almost a pound, or half a kilogram), and your cookware will be coated in a black, sooty residue that smells of burnt wax. This can be scrubbed off with snow, moss, or a scouring sponge, but it is because of this residue that I wouldn’t advise broiling any foods directly over the open flames. Nevertheless, fire cans are still useful for stealth camping because they compliment Leave No Trace principles. In a later post I will show you how to make your own fire can.

When you are ready to pack up and leave the next day, make every effort to erase all signs of your camp. Ashes and coals should be doused until they are cool to the touch, and then buried. If you had an open fire, scrape the blackened Earth down to new soil. Pick up your trash, and remove any rubbish from the trails as you head out. Take time to return your campsite back to its natural setting. If you removed dead-fall sticks and branches, put them back. If leaf litter was scraped away, brush it back. It should not look like you or anyone for that matter was ever there.

IMGP6473

With snow on the ground during winter, don’t worry about your campsite being tamped down…it will disappear and fade back to an even covering with a few snowfalls. I recommend that you bushwhack back by a different route to a marked trail, as this will disperse your tracks enough to give the least chance that anyone follows them.

In conclusion, perhaps the best way to learn the ins and outs of stealth camping, besides going out and practicing on your own, is to take advice from other stealth campers, particularly if they share a similar environment yours. I hope you have found this post useful and come to enjoy going stealth as much as I do :).

 

Cold Steel Frontier Tomahawk Mods

For quite awhile now I’ve been on the search for a lightweight alternative to my Gränsfors Bruks Small Forest Axe. I did purchase a Wetterlings Wildlife axe two years ago, but I found it rather tiresome to use because the head seemed to be too heavy for the length of helve. Instead of acquiring a more balanced hatchet, I figured I would give tomahawks a look. After much thought, comparing, and hunting around online, I finally decided to purchase a Cold Steel Frontier tomahawk.

IMGP6348

Many folks have bought Cold Steel tomahawks and modded them with impressive results, equivalent to higher-end models. But straight out of the box, I was able to do some work on a seasoned Shagbark Hickory log.

IMGP6350

Not bad for a factory edge :).

Before I get into the actual mods I made, I would like to briefly discuss the history of these cutting tools. According to the articles Axes in New France (parts 1, 2 and 3) by Kevin Gladysz and Ken Hamilton, published in the August/September 2012 issue of the Journal of the Early Americas, metal axes from the French and Basque were traded to Natives on the coast of Newfoundland and the mouth of the St. Lawrence River as early as 1542…and by the 1550s, the French were almost exclusively trading for furs. These early trade axes weren’t tomahawks, but rather standard axes that the European ship crews brought with them.

As time went on, the French Canadians found that smaller, lighter axes were not only easier to transport over long distances, but they were better suited to “petite guerre” (guerrilla warfare) during the colonial wars and against hostile Natives. A new axe design was developed, called “casse tête”, literally translating to “head breaker”, and the Algonkin gave the name “tamahak” from which the word “tomahawk” originates.

The casse tête pattern features a rounded teardrop eye, narrow blade with a curved bit, and the top of the blade from the toe to the eye is relatively flat and straight. This is probably the most recognisable French trade design, accurately represented on the Cold Steel Frontier tomahawk.

That said, let’s get onto the modifications :).

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the helve of my Frontier tomahawk had near perfect grain orientation, and instead of a shellac or lacquer finish, the helve was coated with a light layer of wax.

IMGP6359

First things first, I removed the set screw and tapped off the head. There were a few small gouges in the wood from head being forced onto the helve, but this can be touched up with a rasp or a four-in-hand. The handle itself felt a bit too long for my liking, so I sawed off the bottom 3 inches/ 7.5 cm. I sanded down the rest of the helve first with 150 grit, and then a 220.

IMGP6364

To give it a rustic appearance, I applied a light coat of Restor and Finish Walnut stain. It brings out the age and character of the hickory very well. After the stain dried, I finished with some raw linseed oil.

The next thing to do is to remove that ghastly black paint from the head. There are a few ways to do this…you can soak the head in vinegar for 24 hours and scrub off the excess with sandpaper or steel wool, or you can coat the head with paint and varnish stripper. Both methods will not completely remove every speck of paint, so you will have a few tiny spots here and there. If you want a shiny, mirror finish, you will have to spend extra time buffing and using a wire wheel, but if you want an antique-looking tool, either method will work just fine as is.

IMGP6351

Apply the paint stripper over all surfaces (you may have to do one side at a time), and wait 15 minutes or so for it to work. **Do follow the directions and wear chemical resistant gloves, I’d hate to think what this stuff could do to exposed skin.**

The paint can then be wiped off, and the head rinsed in cool water with soap to remove the excess paint stripper. Dry it off, and you should be able to see the temper line on the blade. To give the head a patina, I wrapped it in a vinegar-soaked cloth for about an hour. And since I put a nice stain on the helve, it would be a good idea to file down the burrs inside the eye.

With that done, pretty much all that’s left to do is make a leather sheath and sharpen the edge. I chose a basic design for the sheath with a cord wrap to secure it. Adding a welt is recommended.

IMGP6361

For sharpening, I just filed a slight convex onto the edge, maintaining the original bevel angle. I refined this with my Arkansas stones, and finished with a strop. As the bevel angle is fairly thin at around 20 degrees, I will probably increase that angle to a slightly steeper convex over time. You will have to test out what works for you. The steel itself is 1055 carbon, so it should be able to hold a decent edge. Lastly, I rubbed the head with candle wax and raw linseed oil to minimise rust buildup.

And here we are all finished, next to the Gränsfors Bruks Small Forest Axe for comparison.

IMGP6399

The overall length of my Gränsfors is 19.5 inches/50 cm…my modded Frontier tomahawk is only a hair shorter at 19 inches/48 cm. After initial testing, I noticed that the head would pop itself loose every now and then, so I ended up reworking the top of helve that seats the eye for a tighter fit, wrapping some leather cord just below the head to keep it secured.

IMGP6413

Here’s a side-by-side view. As you can see, the Gränsfors clearly has the heavier head and will therefore likely have greater chopping efficiency, even though the bit of the Frontier tomahawk is slightly thinner.

Now, I don’t believe in “first impressions” posts, so time will tell if my efforts were worthwhile, and I will hold off on any further comparison until then.