What is stealth camping?
Also known as "wild camping", stealth camping is camping at a non-designated camp site. Stealth camping is extremely popular with backpackers, bikepackers (cycle tourists) and hunters.
Most of the time it occurs either when 1) the park you are camping in has designated camp sites and you simply choose not to use them or 2) you are in remote back country wilderness that does not have any designated sites to begin with.
Is stealth camping illegal?
It depends. Generally, stealth camping means you do not have permission to set up camp and sleep at that specific site. Therefore, you will need to find out. Please do not stealth if it is not permitted.
If you are remote enough, not causing any trouble or making a mess... you are usually fine. Kind of a "no harm, no foul" attitude.
However, I highly recommend asking around for the land owner's permission and always keep an eye out for "no camping" signs. You could be awoken by an angry land owner pointing a gun in your face.
When is it a GOOD idea to stealth camp?
Stealth camping is fun and opens up the possibility to setup anywhere - on an outcrop with a great view, near a river with a swimming hole, etc. You might encounter bad weather or get tired and want to setup camp before reaching a site. It is much more peaceful avoiding crowded shelters as well. Staying away from camp sites can also prevent being near expecting rodent or bear populations.
When is it a BAD idea to stealth camp?
There are plenty of reasons why some trails and parks want you to stay in specific spots. Imagine if a trail had a fire ring and cleared out tent sites every few yards. It would destroy the habitat and the serene nature experience in general. This is why if you do decide to go rogue (and it is legal!), it is extremely important to practice Leave No Trace Principles.
5 Steps to Find a Stealth Site:
Selecting the right camp site is pretty simple. But, there are some things to look out for to ensure an enjoyable and safe night sleep.
1. Flat Ground. Really get low to the ground and eyeball how level the area is. I usually lie down in the exact spot I plan to sleep to make sure there is not any incline. If there is an unavoidable incline, I prefer to keep my upper body elevated and place my feet on the decline.
2. Not Too Exposed. Everyone loves stargazing. Be cautious if you are on a high elevation ridge line or exposed grassland where high winds or potential storms could be an issue though.
3. No Dead Limbs or Trees. If you are in a forest, keep an eye out for big and dead looking trees or limbs. These things fall all the time and aren't called widowmakers for nothing.
4. Near Water. It is often recommended to keep at least 100 feet away. This is not too close where you could pollute the source with your food and waste, but close enough to utilize it for drinking. Make sure you are not in a ravine or runoff area in case it rains.
5. Trail Proximity. Everyone wants privacy. Just don't get lost wandering too far off.