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Free camping, otherwise known as stealth or guerilla camping, is just what it sounds like: a free campsite. I call it stealth camping because I prefer a site where I am hidden from passing cars and surrounding houses. It's a simple way to save piles of money on hotels and campgrounds and some of my most awesome camping experiences have happened in free camping spots. Free camping has saved me thousands of dollars while cycling in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia where campgrounds are unfortunately overpriced.
The equipment needed for stealth camping is the same as regular camping gear with one important addition: a water bag. (see below) Typically, bicycle water bottles do not carry enough water for overnight camping. I carry a 10 liter water bag for two people. One person will need a six liter bag. I fill up the bag in town before I start looking for a camping spot. This means I don't have to rely on somehow finding a campsite with a water source, making my options much more flexible. I also recommend a neutral colored tent. A brightly colored tent covered with reflectors will shine like a beacon when it gets hit with a light. I've never used one, but many stealth camping enthusiasts swear by Hennessy Hammocks. (see below) I also use a neutral colored tarp to cover my bike with its many reflecting devices.
The key to stealth camping, I believe, is to leave enough time at the end of the day to find a good spot. Usually what I do is figure out what town will be closest to my final stop for the day and re-supply there. I find a tap to fill up my water bag and make sure I have food for dinner and breakfast. The water bag is great because it folds up small and light when not in use, but full, it holds enough water to make coffee, dinner, breakfast, and even clean up. I strap the full water bag to the top of my gear rack with bungee cords. Back during my early days of cycle camping, I used to tie two gallon milk jugs to my bike. They were easy to tie on to the rack but I couldn't fold them up when they were empty.
I try to leave town with a good quarter of the day left to look for a good camping spot. It takes flexibility to choose a campsite, and I will often backtrack to a good spot I noticed before rather than keep riding on into the dark looking for that 'perfect spot.' Most of my stealth camping spots are off secluded parts along the road, behind some trees, away from houses. Look for a flat spot that's not likely to flood in the rain. Check for signs of party spots: if there are beer cans or bottles on the ground, chances are you'll be visited in the night by teenagers looking to drink in the woods.
Bicycle travel has a huge advantage to car travel when it comes to hiding and stealth camping. A car can’t go over fences or bushwhack through the woods. A car has to be parked somewhere which attracts attention. With a bike you can follow running trails, cross small streams and find a cozy spot. I never light fires in the woods, and make sure the camp stove is nowhere near any flammable material. Remember: the key is to Leave No Trace. Once you leave, the site shouldn't look as if anyone has been there. This includes digging a cat hole for your bathroom and not leaving wads of toilet paper for others to find.
On occasion, I've had to camp in small city parks. City parks are great because there's usually a water source and bathroom, perhaps even a rain shelter. The downside is that camping is sometimes prohibited. I have never had an issue camping in city parks, but I'm very careful and I don't leave any trace of my camp. My strategy is to roll into the park, find a water source to fill up my water bag and scope out a secluded spot where I can camp for the evening. Once that's all done, I relax in the picnic area. I do all my cooking and clean up there. When the sun is setting, I pack everything up, push my bike to my hidden camping spot, quickly put up the tent, put all my gear in the tent and lock my bike securely to a tree. Because it's a public park, I camp with the highest security.
At first light I get up, put all the bags back on the bike and quickly roll up the tent. Then I return to the day use section and have a breakfast picnic complete with hot coffee and oatmeal. It's my experience that no one really cares if you camp this way in a small town. The best scenario is a town just big enough to have a public sports field or park but too small for its own police force. Big city parks are too dangerous, in my opinion, as you're much more likely to be found by police patrols or unsavory park dwellers.
Another option for free camping is to ask permission to put up a tent on someone's lawn. I don't do this often but I've talked to a few solo women cyclists who prefer this to stealth camping. A good friend told me she tries to ask at a place where the home owners are already outside so she can check them out beforehand. She's careful to ask if there's place where she can pitch her tent, rather than asking if there's a place she can sleep, so they don't get the idea that she wants a bed indoors. Usually her impromptu hosts offer up a shower and some dinner, and being close to a house feels a bit more secure than being alone in the wilderness. I prefer being alone in the wilderness so this isn't a camping option I use much.
Free camping in the developing world is much different than the first world. Usually there is no issue of legality. People don't care if you camp between their fields or in an empty lot in a small village. I sometimes have to entertain a crowd of small children or put up with a little staring, but no one will object to my being there. The biggest problems I have camping in developing country is turning down offers to sleep with a family and dealing with heat and humidity. Hotel rooms are usually cheap enough in the third world, and a fan makes the night much more comfortable.
I understand that some people may take issue with camping illegally in public parks or on private property. While I admit that I potentially break the law with my camping choices, I do not advocate destroying any property or leaving any trace of your campsite. This is a choice that responsible cycle campers need to make for themselves. My goal with this article is to provide information about free camping, not to encourage law breaking.
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