“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 –
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 :).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 :).