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.
Woody Guthrie

 

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.

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My favourite campsite: Lake Khovsgol, northern Mongolia, minus 35 degrees Celcius


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.

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Morning Egypt


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.

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Camping in a Californian sea cave


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:

  1. 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.
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    My friend Nyomi’s tent for traversing Africa. Try not to do this.

  2. 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.
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    Camping in a Zambian village, with permission from the chief

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    The Greek island of Samothraki. ‘Hi Mum. Yep, I’m in jail. Uh-huh…. camping.’

  3. Never let anyone see you leave the road. Always wait for cars to pass before you make your foray.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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    I was a bit worried about this. The idea that there was only one: a psychotic bird stalking the countryside. Turns out it’s Dutch for ‘cattle grid’.

  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

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    How not to do it. Trying to escape gale force wind, Mongolia

     

  10. 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.

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    A bit shit (the French Alps)

    5-7

    Better (Patagonia)

    9

    Best (The Peruvian Andes)

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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Spot the tent (Sayram Lake, Xinjiang province, western China)

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Comments (19)

  • Avatar

    SIEW Yung

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    Just what I was looking for. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Sukree Kaeomanee

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    Thanks for the info. Waiting for more.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Ali Mac

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    Informative post! Looking forward to the next. Thanks

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Sam

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    Enjoyed the article, thanks!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Tom Sisk

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    Thanks – enjoyed it!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Danniel Papadopoulos

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    Great blog mate! I definitely agree with everything! keep up the good work – this’ll be gold dust for many!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    T

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    If you are in a place with reasonable mobile reception I found satellite view (GMaps or whichever you prefer) is a great time saver. You can spot meadows inside thick forests, see if a downhill track just leads to a farmhouse or if that tempting river 20k ahead is indeed surrounded by beautiful meadows and trees …

    But great article, keep writing 🙂

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Stephen Fabes

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      Great tip

      Reply

  • Avatar

    Larry

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    read your post. I backpack traveled for 25 winters, and Im just getting into bike touring. I spent last winter six months bike touring in Asia. Im still not confident about saftey in wild camping, but getting used to it. The thing is I mulled over your post and realized the same stuff happened backpack traveling: poisonous snake in room, scorpion, looking into the barrel of a pistol. a war happening around me, floods, snow too deep to walk back out of a place I walked into etc. So, while Im still a little uncertain about starting a career as a bicycle traveler, I must remember that all the same stuff happened while I was using a lonely planet to go all over Asia and Africa. Cought Hepatitus, a pickpocket broke 2 ribs, held up at gunpoint. And still I dont see backpack travel as particularly dangerous. I remember it all as a long stream of interesting and unusual people, and hanging out with Sherpa people, and being in the jungle with Pygmies, and the Kalashi people, and the Egyptian family living in a tomb underground because they could not afford anywhere else and they cooked me a small meal. Anyway, Im saying your blog is making sense of the switch to bike travel; its no more dangerous than backpack travel, and actually my one trip so far has suggested it is actually safer. I had no problems. Thanks

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Lewis

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    I would add to the beach bit to check carefully for the high tide line! If you can’t find it, then you’re probably in it and it goes all the way to the rocky cliff behind you, GTFO.

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Stephen Fabes

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      Absolutely!

      Reply

  • Avatar

    Michael Levin

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    Hmm, but most of your problems were in developing countries I assume? I never had any problems in Europe or Japan, except once in Rome, where a Trans woke me up a 4 a.m. and told me to move; but big cities a never good places.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Brandon

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    Well written, keep it up. Had me laughing and your advice is spot on.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Monica

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    Useful! Thanks

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Rob Provenzano

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    Nice advice. I did pretty good, only caught once on my 40 day 1800 mile tour. It was my first tour in the USA from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin to Durango, Colorado. I was in a town everyday so l would get a flyer or card from a local hotel/motel and then scope out any parks, school, grave yard, or wooded area just outside of town. Then do what ever til almost dark and tell anyone that asked that l was staying at the hotel/motel and go back just before dark and make sure nobody seen me.

    Reply

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    Michael Coleman

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    Fear is the biggest thing that stops a lot of people wild camping so I guess feel the fear and do it anyway until you get used of it,great info thanks

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Oliver

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    Wonderful. One of the best blogs I’ve ever read. Looking forward to more 🙂

    Reply

  • Avatar

    agape2

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    Now I finished the whole post and I just cant help but saying you are on the right track. So are we, who follow your example and your advice. I was reading you one and a half year ago, when preparing my trip. Now in a hostel in Peru, checking my best photos. One year on the road! i left the comment above while being in the middle of the article… everything you were saying sound, now, so familiar… How beautiful wild camping is it…?? truly addictive! Thanks!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Philip

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    Thanks, really interesting and practical advice.

    Reply

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