It’s that time again — another ‘how-to’ sharing the essential tools of the adventurous cyclist’s trade. This time I’m going to deal with what is often a stressful thought for every rider:
“Where the hell I am going to sleep tonight?!?”
What is ‘wild camping’?
Wild camping (or stealth camping, or free camping) is the practice of sleeping outside in a place of your own choosing, rather than in some officially-designated campsite. Ideally, it’ll also involve not being found and disturbed in the middle of the night!
In today’s world, it’s more or less normal to assume sleeping rough to be dangerous, delinquent, perhaps criminal, and in any case impractical. But – trespassing laws aside – if you believe that sleeping on land that was once owned by nobody is a moral right at best and a victimless crime at worst, you’ll have taken the first step towards finding an incredible wealth of free and inconspicuous places to rest your head, without harming a soul.
The next step is knowing what makes a good wild camping spot, and how to maximise your chances of finding one.
Wild camping works everywhere
My introduction to wild camping was crossing Europe back in 2007, when a lack of money made it a necessity.
That’s why, in four months of cycling from England to Turkey, I spent a total of five nights in paid accommodation.
It was difficult and stressful – at first. But soon, the realisation that it was not only possible but actually relatively easy was a true revelation. Since then, I’ve spent over a decade relying on the wild camp for overnighting during my travels on six continents.
To date, I would estimate I’ve spent more than a thousand nights sleeping under canvas for free in this way.
How much money could wild-camping save you?
The initial drive to make wild-camping my primary form of overnight accommodation came from sound financial reasoning.
If I’d stayed at the cheapest hostels available at an average of £10 a night, my first four months on the road would have cost an extra £1,200. That was about 25% of my entire round-the-world trip budget for four years (I had £3500 in the bank and 800 euros in cash when I hit the road).
Another way to put this is that my good-quality tent costing £300 had paid for itself within one month of cycle touring across Europe. (These days you can get a decent tent for much cheaper than that.)
That’s not to mention that I was no longer restricted to places where accommodation was available. As a cyclist, I spent 90% of my time in the countryside between settlements – which is of course where all the best wild-camping opportunities are anyway.
Since that first trip, practice has made perfect, and there’s nowhere I’ve not found a free spot to rest at night when I’ve tried.
How To Ensure A Successful Wild-Camping Experience
Here are a few specific strategies I’ve developed which help the process of finding a place to wild camp on a bike trip:
1. Talk to local people
If you’re unsure about the safety of your surroundings, or whether wild camping will be tolerated, stop and talk to whoever is around. 99% of the time, the people you meet will be very happy to help you find a suitable spot for your tent, and if you’re near a settlement it’s always best to have the locals’ blessing if possible.
Often you’ll find that this will lead to social encounters and occasionally full-blown hospitality, and this is one of the enviable experiences that few but the independent bicycle traveller have the opportunity to enjoy.
(If there’s nobody around, of course – great! Wild camping couldn’t be easier!)
2. Know when to stop
If you’re cycling in open country, allow at least one hour to locate a suitable campsite; more while you’re still learning. If you’re in or approaching a town or city, you need to consider whether you need to stop for anything, and if you’ve got time to make it through and out the other side.
You’ll also need time to check the area and set up your camp before dark. Spending a few minutes absorbing the vibe of the area is usually a good idea (I’m talking basic human intuition here, not ‘energies’ or ‘auras’).
The amount of time you need will depend to a large extent on where you are – sometimes you’ll be spoilt for choice, but if you’re not in a particularly remote area, chances are you’ll need to ride for a while before you find the beach/woodland/pasture you’re looking for.
If you’re in a busy area, scout a spot, have dinner, then sneak off to your campsite after sunset. It’s not ideal, but you’re unlikely to be noticed after dark, unless you wave your head-torch around a lot, which putting up your tent in the twilight is a good way to avoid using it.
This isn’t the ideal situation, but sometime you’ve just got to sleep. Wild camping rarely results in the best campsites you’ve ever slept in, even if Instagram makes it look that way.
3. Get to know yourself better
Wondering why you’re afraid and panicky on your first attempt at wild camping? You’re not alone. Even people with thousands of nights under canvas feel like this – because we as a species have evolved to see potential threats everywhere and avoid them. Our survival in the past depended on our overactive imaginations, which were (and still are) great at cooking up wild fantasies of savage beasts and hostile tribes hiding behind every rock.
The simple truth is that you have to get over it, and the easiest way to do this is to do more wild camping! (Mindfulness meditation also really helps.)
Once you’ve got over the hump, you’ll start seeing potential camping spots everywhere, and boring your friends by incessantly pointing them out.
Yes, there’s stuff living out there – mostly dogs and ants, in my experience (and, if in England, fluffy little bunnies). And if a dog finds you in your nylon cocoon in the woods, it’ll leave you well alone (after noisily swiping your breakfast if you left it outside).
But almost no animal will come to you looking for a fight, because random aggression hasn’t generally been an evolutionarily stable strategy. (If you’re American and you’re about to mention bears, you’re right, and you already know how to camp in bear country.)
And humans don’t roam the fields and forests at night brandishing lethal weapons. Why? Because, like you, they’re afraid of humans roaming the fields and forests at night brandishing lethal weapons!
Once it gets dark, people are uninquisitive of anywhere outside the places they know by daylight. (The exception is border guards and other security forces, so don’t camp near them.)
Now, of course, we’ve slaughtered or contained the man-eating wildlife and have (mostly) got used to living in each other’s company, so it’s safe to chill out. I’ve been hiding my tent just out of sight of roads all over six continents for months on end and have never encountered anything more than an invitation to come and sleep somewhere warmer and/or enjoy a glass or two of the local tipple (except for one black bear in Washington). And this kind of experience is entirely typical of bicycle travellers.
Actually, you’ll be surprised where you can get away with putting a tent, sleeping rough or blagging a horizontal surface! Sometimes, in ’emergencies’, it’s been fun seeing what’s possible in this regard. I’ve slept in fishing boats, tramps’ hovels, hotel gardens, under tables, drainage pipes, storage sheds, abandoned buildings – even about five metres from a busy main road in full view of anyone who cared to stop and take a look!, inner-city parks, building sites, roadside verges, subways, , ,
Sure, the last one wasn’t ideal – the mud was really sticky – but I still got my head down undisturbed for a few hours.
Of course, if you’re out in the Sahara or crossing the Mongolian steppe, you can put a tent anywhere you please. The world is your campsite. Enjoy it!
4. Practice the art of invisibility
Not being seen while wild camping is not just a practical concern – if you’re confident in your own inconspicuousness, you’ll also sleep much better. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to make yourself as invisible as possible.
The first is perhaps the most basic: get away from anywhere there are likely to be people. For most cycle tourists, that means getting off the road and well away from the beams of passing headlights. Avoid places that are obviously popular stops for motorists. A good rule of thumb is to keep going until the litter stops, then go a bit further. (Bikepackers camping in the backcountry tend to have less to worry about in this department.)
If you’re planning on sleeping in a tent, try to get one in a natural shade of green. This will serve you well in a wide variety of environments, because if it’s green, stuff grows there, and if stuff grows there, people probably live there, and people can’t see a green tent in a green field at night. (Other colours will get you by as well, just not as stealthily.)
Unstitch any shiny labels on the outside of you tent. Replace the guy lines for ones that aren’t luminous and ultra-reflective. Remember how useful you thought the reflective bits on your bags & tyres would be at night? Well, now they’re useful for showing passing drivers exactly where you are. Make sure they’re facing away from the road, or cover them with Gaffa Tape.
I often bring a dark-coloured poncho on longer trips, as a waterproof in heavy rain, a picnic blanket when it’s sunny, and finally a cover for my bike and gear to keep it dry and inconspicuous at night.
5. Consider alternative sleeping systems
These days I often travel with a bivvy bag. It’s a lot smaller and lower to the ground than a tent, and I much prefer the feeling of sleeping outdoors than that of being cooped up ‘indoors’. Many bikepackers save valuable space and weight by bivvying.
(For the uninitiated, a bivvy bag is a breathable, protective shell for your sleeping bag, ideally roomy enough to slide your mattress inside as well. I personally use an Alpkit Hunka with thin summer sleeping bags or an army surplus Goretex one if I need more space.)
For added protection from the elements, learn to rig up a poncho or tarp as a shelter (or a ‘basha’ in military-speak) using a bit of light cord and/or a few cargo bungees such as the ones that might be strapping stuff to your bike. Slide under this in your bivvy bag and you’ll stay dry even in a downpour. (Again, Alpkit make a good range, or get a cheap army surplus one.)
For the full military experience, you can leave your boots on inside your sleeping bag as well.
In summary: Relax, it’ll be fine
The main message that I’m trying to get across is that you should prepare as well as possible, and then, when you’re on the road, never give up the belief that there’s a place waiting for you, and all you’ve got to do is find it.
That kind of unshakeable faith is one of the most powerful motivational strategies known to man. (See religion.)
Once you’ve got the hang of it – and it will take a few attempts – you’ve got a dependable tool for getting a good night’s sleep anywhere in the world. For free.
Just imagine the possibilities…!
Perhaps you’re an experienced wild-camper already? Why not share your top tips with us in the comments below?