Stealth Camping and The Art of Tiny House Ninjas

Living in an RV, on the road, full-time, makes you completely aware of the costs associated with the nomadic lifestyle. Besides the cost of the rig itself you also incur the costs of “everyday life” (healthcare, food, clothing, etc), the cost of travel (gas, lodging, rent/lease), and the cost of entertainment should you choose. It can be mind boggling to say the least. That is why I spend quite a bit of free time thinking about how to decrease those expenses while not decreasing opportunity. It seems that a section of people including bicyclists, hikers, RVers, and a few others, have also pondered – but with great success – a way to “stealth” camp and come out the other side.

photo courtesy of Hasselmann

I have only become acutely aware of stealth camping in the last few months via “boondocking” or the art of staying in a recreational vehicle in a remote location, without connections to water, power, or sewer services. It is every bit a form of tiny house living but to a most extreme measure. Your house is anywhere you choose it to be. Boondocking is only one form of stealth camping and it seems that for every passion there is a form of stealth camping to match.

BICYCLE

Stealth camping on bike (also referred to as guerrilla camping or free camping) refers to the practice of finding a quiet spot away from people if possible where one camps for the night making leaving behind no trace that they were ever there. And while it may in some way be about saving money by not paying for a campsite it seems more about experiencing the open road to the fullest; at least to this group. It is about pulling over on the road, ducking into the brush, unsaddling your bike, and stretching out your road weary legs. It is a seemingly simple task but it also requires the ride to be observant (you don’t want to camp on private property, a heavily traveled roadway, or in the middle of an airplane runway), cautious, and prepared. In fact, most bicyclists who practice stealth camping recommend you carry with you the following to make your camping more enjoyable:

  • Food
  • Identification Cards
  • Foil emergency blanket
  • Baby wipes (and disposal bags) for quick sanitation
  • Change of underclothing
  • Sleeping Mat
  • Sleeping Bag
  • and A LOT more!

Bike Camper

Allan E. Stokell’s fully loaded camping bike in front of Caerphilly Castle in Wales.

There is quite a bit of information available online regarding bicycle stealth camping. For a robust list of tips visit the Bicycle Touring Pro.

HIKING

In my estimation stealth camping seems most advantageous for hikers. For instance, on the very popular Appalachian Trail there are shelters and overnight dwellings available at multiple spots along the entire hike. However, the distance from one to another may be exceptionally short or alarmingly long. I have heard from some hikers that on the Maine trail there is a camping spot every 10 miles. The average thru-hiker accomplishes 13 miles a day though so oftentimes a long day will end smack in the middle of the stop stations. There is nothing left to do but stealth camp or wild camp.

The legalities surrounding stealth camping can vary greatly by state, city, or even local municipality. While pitching a small tent on the side of a state highway in Alabama may be fine it may not be fine in Arizona. Hikers interested in being a camping ninja should be familiar with the state law at least before taking their first step.

Stealth camping for the hiker can be a bit of a burden though. Not only do you need to think about food and water for the hike but to some extent (especially for camping) you have to think about lodging, medical emergencies, communication, etc. No one can enjoy hiking with a 100lb. pack. Ideally a pack  – for camping or not – should not exceed about 35lbs. That is quite a task when you are trying to pack food, food prep gear, sanitation implements, a sleeping mat, a sleeping bag, a small tent, layered clothing, and other objects such as a camera, a journal, or a guide. At to that the unwritten law of leaving the site as you found it you may have to have knowledge on fire starting and extinguishing in safe manner as well as trash and sanitation disposal. A great resource is Stealth Camping online.

Hiker Camping

photo courtesy of JJ Harrison

RVing

It goes without saying that stealth camping with an RV is a bit harder than any of the previously mentioned hobbies. Finding a remote location for any sort of vehicle can be quite a challenge. But with the number of unpopulated areas still left in the United States (and serviced by paved roads even!) it can be done. It is important to understand that boondocking or stealth camping in an RV is a bit of a different practice. While many don’t like the word boondocker it has become common vernacular and really just stands for RVers who camp without any sort of hookups and are totally self-reliant. This includes water, sewage, electricity, etc. It also means no camping fees and no park regulations which can oftentimes be the biggest perk involved save the ability to spend time in some of America’s most visually breathtaking spots without any disturbance. There are four considerations when boondocking. Neither is truly more important than the other but all four must be adequately prepared for. Boondockers need to consider water, food, waste, and power.

Water can be supplied by the on-board freshwater tank to which you can augment with water carriers, extra tanks, bottles, etc. It is recommended that you have at least 1 gallon of drinking water per person per day but in addition a boondocker may want to shower, wash dishes, prepare food, etc. Food can be as fancy or as simple as you like. If a boondocker cooks using propane the only consideration is, of course, the propane and perhaps the refrigeration needed to keep the food from spoiling prior to cooking. Even cereal can become an obstacle as milk is needed and milk must stay refrigerated and refrigeration requires power! Waste is both human and garbage. An RV has a black tank so that is not a problem. However, each flush uses water which comes from the holding tank (water) and is powered by a water pump (power). One may want to consider outfitting their RV with a composting toilet instead. As for garbage, it can be disposed of as normal but should be put in a large, black, heavy duty bag at the end of each day and then secured either in the back of a pickup in a box or something similar in order to keep critters out. Power comes in a few forms and is dependent on the type of RV and the boondocker themselves. Think on-board generator, portable generator, batteries, solar, wind, etc. It is important to remember though that even a camper slide relies on power to move in and out.

Boondocking

photo courtesy of The Snowmads

THE NEW KID

As of late the tiny house trailer crew has taken an interest in stealth camping too as there has been a significant visible rise to the stealth camper. Sometimes referred to as the “Bug Out Bunks” or “Get Out of Dodge” trailer these stealth campers are pretty fascinating as they are outfitted much like traditional tiny houses or RVs yet they are done so within the confines of an enclosed utility trailer. I first became aware of the fad in late 2012 when I saw the ‘Over The Top Cargo Trailer‘ on the Small Trailer Enthusiast website. The idea is that one takes an enclosed cargo trailer and converts the interior to a well appointed camping rig. This is so it can be parked almost anywhere without raising any suspicion as to what is inside. With on-board generators, solar power, comfortable beds, water holding tanks, commodes and showers, and much more these new kids on the block are certainly part of the future of the stealth camping set.

Stealth Trailer

 

By Andrew M. Odom for the [Tiny House Blog]

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Catherine Paull - October 9, 2014 Reply

My daughter just spent over a year living in an RV travelling around the country with a national tour of a Broadway Show. They mostly stayed in legitimate RV parks, but while travelling from one destination to another, they took advantage of the free overnights that Wal-Mart allows. Saved them some money on each of their trips.

murrday - October 9, 2014 Reply

People hiked and camped for centuries before refrigeration was even invented.
And currently, there are a great number of options available for making your own dehydrated trail foods. Or if you’re in a hurry, buy some ready made ones at a camping supplies store.

I led backpacking trips for years, as a camp counselor. There’s no need for refrigeration when you use powdered milk for your cereal. Mix only what you need for the current meal. If you don’t care for the taste of powdered milk, try a packet of vanilla instant breakfast drink as an alternative.

Marti - October 9, 2014 Reply

I have heard that WalMarts in the U.S. allow people to boondock in their parking lots overnight. Not sure how long they let you stay, but I’m sure they do it so you will end up buying your RV supplies from their store. Kind of a win-win.

    Andrew M. Odom - October 9, 2014 Reply

    They do allow boondocking but it really should be viewed as overnighting instead. While there are no written rules there are some guidelines that should be observed.

    1) Ask Permission :: it takes no time at all to go in to the store, speak to a manager, and ask him/her if you can overnight in their parking lot. Have a pre-determined site in mind so you can ask them specifically if you can overnight in section XYZ

    2) Don’t Abuse the Situation :: try to make it an overnight stay. Don’t stay longer than 12 hours but try to make it more like 10. Regardless of how long your stay you should try to be out of the parking lot by 10am latest.

    3) Park. Don’t Setup :: Even if your RV or camper has slides or jackstands, don’t use them. You aren’t there to set up homestead. You want to appear as nonchalant as possible.

    4) Show Your Appreciation :: If you stay in their parking lot you should try to somehow give back to their business.

    Curtis Beardsley - October 9, 2014 Reply

    Some WalMarts even have designated areas for overnighting. Overnighting is the key word. Otherwise, this is the only positive thing I can say about WalMart. Sorry.

Becca - October 9, 2014 Reply

Very informative! The stealth camping via biking seems the most… badass haha. But I’m sure they are all fun 🙂

jaks - October 9, 2014 Reply

In the UK we call it wild camping, we spent 3 months from mid march till June chasing the sun round France and Spain with 2 staffies in a converted vw t5 transporter van, great fun we had waking up on a beach with new neighbour’s most morning’s. Back at work now doing agency work to save up for next march!(don’t wait for old age just do it)

David Remus - October 9, 2014 Reply

In California there are lots of free campgrounds. Here is a site that lists almost two thousand around the US:

http://www.freecampgrounds.com/results.aspx?s=7

The Bureau of Land Management has properties all over the US that offer free camping, some for months at a time.

Simply pulling over in CA would require stealth since it would be trespassing in most cases. Getting woken up in the middle of the night by a State Ranger or policeman is one thing, an armed angry landowner is quite another.

Tre Deuce - October 9, 2014 Reply

I spent 6 years(1998-2004) on the road traveling the seven Western states in my 8-1/2′ camper, doing field engineering under contract for a NW company. Some of the best and most interesting and rewarding times in my life, and I have traveled extensively over the years.

Quite miss my camper, and now retired, and will be buying another camper next Spring.

I chose the camper because I quite hate motel rooms and I didn’t need to fly to my next job.

While a vehicle able to support a camper or travel home does not get great fuel mileage, if you plan your trips and stay a few days or more and pack a lot into your travels, the fuel costs can be amortized over the the time spent out enjoying the country.

For those with more modest vehicles, a good choice for a mobile camping rig, is a folding camp trailer. They tow easily and don’t reduce fuel economy, much.

And some Wal-Marts do not let you overnight stay due to municipal constraints. Most of these were in the coastal and big city areas of California.

John Mauldin - October 9, 2014 Reply

Boondocking with an RV is a wonderful way to travel. The Bureau of Land Management owns millions of acres of land and a permit to stay for the better part of a year is very cheap (was $40.) There are also many towns that allow free parking at fairgrounds, local parks, etc. There are directories for free camping spots. Flying J allows boondocking at their thousands of truck stops around the US. Noisy and some fuel odors from diesel but many are now separating RVers from the truck areas. These are safe and have full time guards. If you stay in WalMart, if you don’t check with management, you will get a guard at your door at 1AM that will no go away. Or they will call the police. NEVER put out lawn chairs, open slides, etc. They don’t want someone camping on their parking lots. And some Walmarts strictly prohibit parking of RV’s. I use solar panels on my RV and I only have to dump the tank every two weeks so you can stay for a prolonged period without hassle. There are also a lot of drag strips, outdoor events, fairgrounds, etc. that allow short term camping. However you do it…. do it! I started camping when I was a kid and have done it for a very long time. Don’t wait! Enjoy!

Curtis Beardsley - October 9, 2014 Reply

This is something I want to try when I finally get a pickup and small travel trailer. I am also going to purchase a simple solar and wind system for electricity. I’ve also ordered a solar refrigerator if I need to keep things cold. If you don’t have anything to do that, especially for milk, I recommend buying powered milk and making just enough for your cereal. I suppose one could drink it but I have yet to find a powered milk I am willing to drink on a regular basis. One also might want to carry a smallish rainwater capture system so you only have to worry about pure water for drinking and cooking. Rainwater can be used for everything else. Oh, these pictures and the article have inspired me! Thanks.

2BarA - October 9, 2014 Reply

My husband and I started boondocking back in the ’80’s in a truck bed with a cap. We graduated to a cargo van which we outfitted
with a bed, porta potti, water jugs, barbeque, etc. Then we graduated to a camper van which had a sink, gas stove and electric frig, which we used as an icebox. We stayed in a number of places from spots in the bush to WalMart parking lots, truck stops, etc. We usually filled up with gas, then asked permission to stay the night. I have travelled alone several times since his death, much to the horror of my daughters! There has never been any trouble and I have enjoyed the privacy and coziness which I much prefer to motels. As long as I can boil water I can have tea, hot chocolate, instant porridge, soup, rice, mashed potatoes. I eat canned salmon, tuna, cocktail sausages, yogurt, granola bars, fruit, bread, bagels, muffins, cheese & peanut butter. I use rest-area washrooms, sponge baths and baby wipes and visit hot springs where possible. If I am tired or the weather turns bad I can find a place to pull off and keep my own schedule. It’s not for everyone, but I love it!

Jill Aaron - October 9, 2014 Reply

Nice article! It is inspiring me to research this topic in depth. And thank you to the person who mentioned Walmart. I have noticed RV’s there, but it never entered my mind to stay there, myself.

Mark - October 9, 2014 Reply

I plan on doing this full-time as soon as I convert my 2004 Dodge Sprinter into a class B RV. For stealth purposes I’ll be making the exterior of the van look like a commercial vehicle (including magnetic signs on the side). Check out my YouTube channel to watch the build happen step by step.

https://www.youtube.com/user/TheNomadicvanman/videos

Margy - October 9, 2014 Reply

We just got back from a camping trip to Newfoundland. There, gravel pit camping is very common, especially for people with RVs. They may not be as attractive as a public campground, but they make for a good overnight stay while traveling. – Margy

mike - October 10, 2014 Reply

I love this concept and would like to explore it…

however, am I the only one who finds the thought of waking up in a Walmart parking lot depressing as hell? I try to avoid that place whenever possible…

    minimalistraveler - February 25, 2015 Reply

    Staying in a Walmart parking lot is nowhere near as refreshing as camping in a secluded natural area, but when stuck in suburban sprawl, it may be your only choice. I generally don’t stay at Walmart unless I get stuck in town after dark.

Drew - October 11, 2014 Reply

I spent six months in Australia and two in New Zealand where the only times I slept indoors was when people invited me to their homes. The rest of the time was stealth bike camping, which I think is by far the most satisfying of the listed options.

My girlfriend and I also spent six months with some bike but mostly car camping, maybe 1/3 of that stealth. The car experience can be awesome but you feel so much closer to nature on a bicycle when you are literally never inside a structure except your tiny tent.

Have done much of the hiking stealth too and it is good but you are just so restricted by how far you can walk. On a bike something a two miles out of your way is an easy detour but on foot it is a major sacrifice. So a bike can access so many incredibly beautiful spots like remote beaches and waterfalls that you camp at and boom! By 7 am you are back on the trail.

I think people should define what stealth means. It means you are hiding, usually because you are not sure you are camping legally!

Drew - October 11, 2014 Reply

I don’t yet have a tiny house but the limiting factor seems to be going off road. You would be not be hauling that thing around like a truck. Caution on any dirt road is wise, and many of the off-the-beaten-track places mean poor dirt roads and rutted tracks.

A recent Tiny House Nation showed just how vulnerable these trailers are to traversing dirt roads and wet ground. I would think any remote spot would need to be scouted thoroughly before taking the tiny house there.

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