Have you ever set up camp in an area you really shouldn’t have? I am aware that I have. I’ve made an impromptu trip to Moab and not just for kicks. I arrived after dark to find that every campsite was gone. I spent a few hours looking in vain until I found a peaceful road to park on and set up my tent next to for the night, praying that no one would pass by. To be honest, every time my girlfriend and I travel to the south to see her parents, we almost always park the van on a side street in a beach town, spend the night in the back, and hope that no one lives nearby and is keeping a close eye on things. 

You’ve undoubtedly experienced the feeling of quietly camping somewhere unapproved, whether you’re trying to save money on lodging or you just don’t have any other options. “Stealth camping” is a known practice, and people who engage in it are known as stealth campers.

Unlike wild or dispersed camping, which authorities permit outside of constructed campgrounds, people engage in stealth camping by sleeping under cover in locations where it is either expressly or tacitly prohibited. Then why do these stealth campers engage in it? Is it merely a cost-cutting measure, or is there another reason? We discuss the concept of stealth camping in the US and the UK, where authorities define it significantly differently, and we also examine some of the factors driving this expanding trend.

In the US, what is Stealth Camping?

As we found out, even though the term is the same, the act of stealth camping can vary slightly between the US and the UK. It’s unnecessary to secretly camp in a tent in places like Colorado with large amounts of public property, even though this practice could be more popular in the East and Texas. Stealth camping, as it is known in the west of the Atlantic, also includes van camping outside of official RV campgrounds. Stealth campers park their vans in public places like a city’s downtown or a residential neighborhood close to the beach, as opposed to paying to park at an RV site where you may take advantage of facilities like hookups, showers, and trash disposal and set up your double-burner stove for a picnic without encountering any problems. People now refer to these RVs as stealth camper vans. Although overnight camping, sometimes known as sleeping in your car, is frequently forbidden in these areas, if your stealth camper van has curtains or is windowless, you can stay inside without anyone knowing. It appears to be simply another street-parked passenger car.

Why would you act in this manner?

In a city setting, you save money on camping fees and hotel rooms, and the practice is probably becoming more popular as a result of many cities and municipalities banning tent camping to reduce the number of homeless people. Additionally, it means you can set up camp close to the activities you want to experience, like seeing the city, surfing, or even just having a few drinks without having to worry about getting back in a car afterward. There may not always be hotel rooms available if you’re traveling during a major holiday or event, and in many cases, this may be your only choice.

Naturally, it might be against the law to camp covertly in a van, and if caught, you might have to pay a fee. It can be challenging to determine whether anything you’re doing is actually against the law or merely cause for a scowl, but clear signs that say “No overnight parking” and “No sleeping in vehicles” are a dead giveaway. Parking and sleeping regulations differ from place to place.

Some sly stealth campers want to hide in plain sight, on bustling city streets where it will be noisier but no one will suspect that you’re sleeping inside. Others like to pick quiet neighborhoods, however, that can raise suspicion from watchful neighbors. 

Naturally, a stealth camper van is required for this kind of covert camping, so it’s important to make it as unobtrusive as possible. Add blackout curtains or shades to the windows, and install a screen between the front seats and the back so that not even a suspicious dog walker—or police officer—will be able to see you in your sleeping bag back there.

In the UK, what is Stealth Camping?

The phrase “stealth camping” can apply to the same activities as it does on the other side of the pond, but in the UK it truly refers to a survival-focused form of wild camping, which is becoming more and more popular due to tightening regulations much as in the US. Anyone who camps outside of approved campsites in England and Wales without permission from landowners is technically breaching the law, as wild camping is now only permitted in Scotland. To avoid being discovered or asked to move on, so-called stealth campers may attempt to discreetly set up a tent in response which we may simply call as a stealth camping tent.

One explanation for this is that many UK citizens believe they should have the right to spend time in nature within their own country. In places like Dartmoor, where wild camping was permitted for many years but was recently outlawed by a stingy, wealthy landowner, the practice has turned into a moral crusade. True stealth campers make a deal to clean up any garbage they encounter on the route and perform other good actions for natural spaces in exchange for being allowed to spend the night in the wild without drawing attention.

Stealth camping has gained popularity among certain groups because it gives people in England and Wales the chance to hone their survival and backcountry bush crafting skills—things that are obviously not possible at a front-country campground, albeit the showers can be a terrifying litmus test. These individuals might approach it somewhat like participants on the television program Hunted, moving from location to location covertly and without leaving any evidence of their stay.

What can you do?

Use a dark or camouflaged tent or hammock for this kind of stealth camping, and look for regions of distant wilderness or woodland where the undergrowth can hide you. To become less noticeable, you might even give up on the stealth camping tent entirely and learn how to construct your own shelter out of organic materials. When lighting campfires, exercise caution so as not to draw unwanted attention. You must become knowledgeable about backcountry safety, acquire navigation skills, and bring all the necessities for survival, such as a first aid kit, a camping knife, and water purification equipment if you plan to camp covertly in a wilderness area.

To summarize

Stealth camping may be exhilarating and can improve your outdoor skills, regardless of the continent you’re on or if you’re on wheels. Naturally, we have to stress that any trespassing of the natural environment is done so lightly and with no evidence of it; we cannot advocate breaching the law.