How to rough camp without being murdered in your sleep
I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me, a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
This land was made for you and me.
There’s a tradition to uphold, I’m aware, in writing these how-to posts. I’m supposed to peacock my own expertise, describe how flawlessly I’ve rough camped, in misty glens, on pine-sprinkled clifftops, amid glittering dunes. But then how could you trust the advice? To paraphrase ancient wisdom, we learn through our fuck-ups. And in my experience of rough camping, there has been quite a lot of learning, because there have been an enormous number of fuck-ups.
I’ve catalogued these events in names that invoke time-worn horror movies. There has been The Night of The Fire Ants (El Salvador), The Dawn of the Scorpion under my Thermorest (Argentina). The Midnight of the Flood (Australia). The Raging Gunman (Peru). Almost Crushed to Death by Deadwood (Nicaragua). Citizens have become so concerned about my tent, and the beardy creature lurking within, they have called the police to have me removed from their slice of suburbia. Twice.
Whatever your monikor – rough camping, wild camping, stealth camping – it calls for cunning and initiative. There’s something obviously seductive about sleeping in wild places. Sunrise feels like something you’ve earned. It’s uplifting: the glint of stars, the scent of a wet forest, the cheep and rustle of the natural world. And the next day you just pack up and go, simple as that, uncertain where you’ll sleep the next night, but certain you’ll figure it out. It’s freedom. It’s addictive too.
But there can be something even more exhilarating about rough camping in the edgeland, sneaking beneath the skin of cities and towns, in the waste ground, behind carparks and beside highways, enclosed in half-light and jumbled shrubs, listening to droning traffic, the clank and grumble of industry, the pylons which hiss like vipers, the harangue of farm dogs that have fixed your scent. It’s thrillingly outsiderish. You’re the thief at the window.
Rough camping is, without doubt, one of my very favourite things in the world.
Before I embark on my top tips for rough camping, you should know that there is one important stratagem for rough camping wherever you are. Think of it this way:
Rough camping is a game of hide and seek against the world.
As is often noted by travellers, the world is populated overwhelmingly by benevolent souls unlikely to cause you any concern, even if you’re spotted rough camping in their neighbourhood. However, very little happens in villages around the world. You, my friend, are news. So if one person finds out where you are, it’s not difficult to imagine that word will spread and you will be the topic of conversation, soon 100 people know there’s a gringo, farangi or mzungu down the road. It only takes one bad apple to give you a stressful night: maybe they’re drunk and want a drinking buddy. Maybe they want money, or your bike. Most likely they’re simply curious and would like to watch you sleep for a while. Anyone rough camping in Ethiopia for example will be well used to the feeling of opening your bleary eyes of a morning to discover 37 people crowded around your tent porch, all watching you as if you’re Match of the Day.
Here’s how I approach the job of rough camping. Usually I begin scouring for a place to camp about half an hour before the sun sets. This is because I’d like to use as much of the day as I can to cycle, and once my tent is up I’d like it to get dark fairly quickly (remember: hide and seek against the world). However the half an hour is not fixed, it depends where I am. If you’re on a road carved into a rocky mountainside, a tortuous uphill, the chances of finding a decent rough camping spot in the 3 km you’ll accomplish in half an hour is slim, so maybe I’ll extend my hunting time to an hour. Equally if I’m whistling through an empty desert, turbo charged by a tailwind, then I don’t bother looking at all: as the sun sets, my campsite is guaranteed. I begin only noticing really great spots, but as dusk approaches, my fussiness falls, until in near darkness I’ll take anything I can get. Remember too that night falls fast near the equator, whereas at northern and southern latitudes you have lots more time.
Here’s another important rule, one I have learnt the hard way. If you think you’ve spotted a great rough camping spot from the road, then it’s not a great rough camping spot. You have the same binocular apparatus as everyone else, ideally hiding means no line of sight. I pause when suspicion grows of a decent place (at the risk of sounding wanky, there is a bit of instinct in this), and then lay down my bike and go for a brief foray on foot. Look behind things, on top of things, scour for cover. Follow trails (but always imagine where they might lead). Think about where car headlights will go once the sun sets (I’ve been outed many a time by camping on a corner). No joy? Collect your wheels, pedal on, and ‘sense’ the next opportunity. You’re a Jedi.
A question that stumped me when I presented on this topic at the excellent cycle touring festival recently was that of legality. It stumped me, because it’s not something I care to think about much. Clean up, don’t camp on a farmer’s prize marrow patch (for one thing, it’s won’t be comfortable) and indulge your anarchic side, but do it steathily. If you’re good at rough camping, it doesn’t matter whose property you’re on.
Here are a few top tips:
- Think about your tent. If your tent is the right colour to attract the attention of a remote helicopter pilot in the case of an avalanche, then you deserve everything you get. For rough camping, your tent should be of a dark tone, green or blue, not yellow or red. Otherwise it’s like the SAS putting on day glow and high vis to storm the jungle den of a Colombian Drug Cartel. It’s rough camping suicide.
Get a free standing tent. I virtually never use pegs, and I can’t recall ever using guys. There’s far too much weight in there for it to go anywhere. And if you don’t need pegs you can camp on concrete and on sand. The former is surprisingly useful: I’ve set up on petrol station forecourts, inside derelict houses, on old runways. Some tents will allow you to pitch the entire tent without pegs, others will allow just the inner. But at least some part of your tent must be freestanding. Smaller is obviously an advantage too, but always keep your kit inside.
Use a ground sheet. The terrain of rough camping is unpredictable and it will be harder than you imagine on your tent. Thorns, sharp rocks, cacti: all risk that slow, glum deflation of your sleeping mat, so take the precaution.
- Think: do I need to? There are some parts of the world when it may not be worth the hassle. In places like Egypt and Ethiopia the attention can be overwhelming, getting found out would be too fraught with trouble and hotels in the latter cost a quid a night. In Myanmar it’s strictly forbidden, so be extra cautious, or take another option. In China, if anyone spots you, the police won’t be far away. In built up areas where accommodation is cheap and ubiquitous, maybe it’s better to use it. If you’re concerned about safety, I would often ask in the village instead of hiding away, particularly in Sub Saharan Africa where you’ll often be directed to camp outside the chief’s hut, and hence under his protection. You may also be invited to sleep in someone’s home, or in the local police station, fire station, hospital or school. Be careful in borderlands, which can be sensitive areas, especially if there’s refugees moving between countries and often military about.
- Never let anyone see you leave the road. Always wait for cars to pass before you make your foray.
- Look up. There’s a tendency for people to look down into things rather than up at things, so aim high if you can, and there’s less chance of getting caught. Not such a great call if there’s a thunder storm. Obvs.
- Found a decent spot. Good. But are you sure? I like the old cub scout adage: Look up, down and around. Up for deadwood, potential landslides (take care in the wet season in mountainous places, listening to the sound of crashing earth from my tent in western Myanmar was terrifying). Look down at the ground, make a guess at how absorbent the earth is. Leaf litter will absorb rain, sandy or clay-like soil could leave you with a soggy sleeping bag. Check for rodent holes and ants. It’s impossible to ant proof a tent. The gaps at the end of zips offer easy access. If there’s a morsel of food, they’ll find a way in, and they’ll invite a million mates. I’ve been evicted from my tent when a pullulating ball of fireants appeared on the roof of my tent through a half centimetre slit in the fabric, and I couldn’t return until the next morning. Leaf cutters have been known to march off with fabric too, creating a slowly enlarging hole in your tent. I’ve had a black widow spider and a scorpion under my sleeping mat. And look around for evidence of larger animals which can be a nuisance too. In bear-country you’ll have to remove your food from the tent and stash it somewhere (I’d hang it in a tree, or open the metal bins and stick it in the back.) But dogs will be problematic everywhere, not so much strays, more likely farm dogs. You can do your best to hide, but dogs will often give you away, as they’ll hear and smell you first and sound the alarm. Occasionally they’ll approach your tent, but remember most dogs are territorial, and anxious, especially at night. Usually they won’t go too far from home.
- Be discreet. Once the tent is up, it’s not time to celebrate with fireworks. If you’re close to houses, remember that a multifuel stove can reach 130 decibels. Don’t mess it up once you’ve done the hard work.
- Greet strangers. If the games up, don’t look shifty and furtive. Take a few long, confident strides over to any onlookers, smile and say hello. This makes it more likely you’ll enjoy a night of peace.
- ALWAYS lock your bike to your tent. I wish there was something else more attention grabbing than caplocks. ALWAYS!!! do this. I’ve heard all sorts of tales: Mongolian horsemen tying bikes to their horses and galloping away across the steppe. Doesn’t matter how remote you are, just make it habit.
- Be practical. Here are some places you might want to avoid: hollows, unless you’re very confident it won’t rain. Dry rivers beds, unless you’re very, very confident it won’t rain (and if so, they actually make pretty good places, as it’s easy to get far from the road).
Beaches: A sea view. A morning dip. A setting sun firing up the sea. It sounds a nice idea, in the same way as building a raft and lighting out for distant shores sounds a nice idea, until you’re parched and starving and cold and soon-to-be-dead. There is little cover on beaches, few places to hide, and they tend to contain some irritating things for rough campers: sand, which fucks up zips, wind, which fucks up tents and frustrates stoves, dodgy characters and drunks, for whom beaches are a common stomping ground. And if it rains, it will likely come through the groundsheet.
Lakes: also nice for a morning dip, but if it’s mosquito season and you’re in the northern latitudes, be prepared to spend the night pissing into a bottle rather than risk unzipping the door.
- My top tip: have patience. Not being choosy enough is the number one reason you’ll get found out. Scout well, be particular and you’ll be daisy-fresh for the road the next day. Cycling 130 km on 2 hours kip is really annoying.
I hope I haven’t made that sound too troublesome. I have probably spent around 800-1000 nights rough camping over the six years I was on the road, so there have been a remarkable number of nights without fire ants and the threat of rabies. This must be true, though to tell you the truth, I can’t think of that many. You tend to remember the snafus.
I’ll be writing a number of these how-go guides over the next few months for touring cyclists. If you’ve enjoyed this, share it and leave a comment, and I’ll know I’m on the right track.
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