Campground fees can impact your travel budget quickly. Here's how I avoid them.
Step 1: Camping for Free Is Called "Stealth Camping" Here's How:
It costs about $12-$20 per night for a rustic campsite at most state parks and private campgrounds around the U.S. For that you won't get an electric hook up, but you should get water and the use of a restroom or Vault Toilet. But if you do that for several nights, you're talking real money. There are other ways. Where I live, in Michigan, you can camp on state land under a program called "Dispersed Camping" for free. Dispersed Camping is basically heading out away from the road and other campgrounds, finding a level spot, and pitching your tent. You'll have to fill out a form, (get it online at http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10365_108... ) and leave it when you leave so if a Ranger finds your campsite they'll have a record of your stay.
Many companies that produce timber own vast amounts of land and allow recreational use of their lands while the timber grows. A quick google search should turn up links to companies with these types of programs in your area. Usually this type of camping is free.
But if you're moving across the countryside and night is falling, you may have to find a spot on a piece of land and you might not know who owns it. If you camp under these conditions you are "Stealth Camping". I've done this all my life and have lots of advice as to how to do it and how to stay out of trouble.
Either watch the video (above) or read the transcript, (below) but the information is the same. You'll benefit from my experience and hopefully not have to learn the hard way. Once you know how, Stealth Camping offers an amazing feeling of freedom, -and its FREE!
There are many reasons people Stealth Camp. I do it because I want the freedom of camping where the night finds me. I don't want to have to reach a specific destination at a certain time, such as a campground or a motel. Stealth Camping fits my style because I use a bicycle to get where I'm going and I'm usually wandering without a tight schedule. Around nightfall I'll start looking for places to SC. I've occasionally had a hard time finding a place that meets my requirements, but usually its surprisingly easy and it turns out I've found some beautiful places to SC. And, here's the best part, there are no campground fees to pay or campground rules to follow.
The trick is to not get into any trouble. Trouble could be a charge of trespassing, but I've talked to police about it and if the landowner complains, I could be charged. If the landowner doesn't know I was ever there, and the police don't find me, or find me suspicious, I won't get in any trouble. The police I've spoken with in various locations never knew what SC is. So I'm in the category of under-the-radar, which is how I like to fly, (or pedal).
If you're using a car to SC, its much harder. A car is harder than a bike to conceal. A bike is silent. A bike gets you there without having to pay for gas, insurance, the car payment, etc. A bike can lay flat, it can carry all the equipment you need and a few luxuries too. But a car can be a shelter too, easier than pitching a tent, and you can wake up and speed away from some forms of trouble in a car. In a tent you're more vulnerable. I find uncertainty exhilarating, so I prefer a tent.
If you do SC with a car, the best way to avoid trouble is to park at a bar or restaurant, grab your gear out of the trunk and quietly walk away to your pre-selected SC camp. Anyone would assume you had another ride home, so your car shouldn't arouse suspicion. Carpool parking lots are a good place too. But bike SC is my favorite because of the feeling of freedom and of being immersed in the outside world.
While on my bike I SC where I like the feel of the place. I'll give you some examples of great places I've found. There was a big storm coming once and I found a forest behind a Home-Depot. It started pouring as I finished setting up my tent and I got inside. I knew it would rain for awhile and it turned out it poured rain for 2 days and nights. I was pinned down except for the fact that I turned on my laptop and discovered the free wi-fi from Home-Depot! I was entertained the whole time.
Once I was pushing my bike up a mountain and discovered an abandoned road running parallel to the busy road I was on. I veered off onto the abandoned road and walked a few yards until I found a level place and pitched my tent in the middle of the road. I ended up staying there a couple of nights because I needed time to do some bike maintenance. It was a sweet spot.
Once along the Potomac River I was Stealth Camping at nightfall and was rigging a spring pole. A spring pole is a short length of fishing line that you tie to a branch beside the river. Bait the hook and toss it in and come back in the morning to see if you've caught a catfish, which bite all night. But as I was walking away the branch started wiggling and I pulled out a 2 foot long blue catfish. I ate it all and went to sleep with a full belly. I still remember the beautiful feeling of being provided for, having what I need when I need it. That's prosperity.
I never camp near cities because all the good spots are taken already by the homeless. I'm not against the homeless, but they have problems I don't want to be near. They're territorial, so they won't welcome you setting up camp nearby. You don't want to anyway, because they're not living with their friends because they've worn out their welcome because they're messy or anti-social. They can have substance abuse problems you don't want to involve yourself in.
I always have a cover story ready in case of a visit from someone during the night. I could explain how my bike broke and I was fixing it til dark, or how my back went out and I had to quit pedaling and lie still because its painful. I never carry a weapon such as a gun, although I do carry a knife but its a fillet knife and I'm a fisherman, so its logical that I would have one, (and it has a long blade). I don't want to have a situation where I'm searched and get charged with carrying a concealed weapon. Carry a gun and they'll think you're hunting on their land or up to no good and dangerous. You don't want to arouse suspicion. I carry my fillet knife in plain sight. I've never had to use it as a weapon. I don't expect trouble.
There are poor choices you can make when scouting for a SC site. Near a path where people jog, walk or walk dogs isn't a good choice because someone could see you and report you. A dog may wander, following your scent, and come right to your camp, bringing their curious owner. Not too Stealthy.
Near a school or place where kids congregate isn't a good choice because people might think you're a pedophile and get nasty. Same with a summer camp. I once stayed at the headquarters of a Coon Hunting Club. Great spot, nobody was there because it wasn't coon season.
I don't complicate things by building a fire. Its light gives your position away, its smoke makes people wonder if something of theirs is burning and they have to investigate. Its hard to tend a fire and rest from a long day of pedaling. If I'm cold I get in my sleeping bag. I don't like smelling like a campfire when I go into a restaurant. Lots of reasons to forgo a fire when you're SC. They may keep away wild animals, but if that's your concern there are other ways to keep them at bay. That's a topic for another Instructable.
A great place to SC is land marked by an old for sale sign. There's plenty of places for sale and all but forgotten, owned by developers who've never been there.
You can't go wrong when selecting a site to SC if you come across a church that's out in the country. Religious people probably won't come after you with a shotgun.
Always keep your camp neat and clean with no litter, no scattered gear, so that the first impression you present to someone discovering your SC is that you're disciplined. Combine this with politeness and a cheerful attitude and you'll be ok. If you're friendly, they will follow your lead.
Avoid abandoned homes, vandalized buildings, or any place near a prison. Good places are power-line cuts, logging roads, trail heads, and large parks that close at dusk. I once camped in a park along a stream in the desert, some kind of nature preserve that didn't allow camping. I pitched my tent in a thicket and right before dark I heard the Park Staff walk by, doing a final check that everyone had left the park. They missed me. HA!
Tips for avoiding trouble: no contraband, (illegal drugs, weapons, animal traps, fishing gear if you don't have a fishing license, etc). Don't give law enforcement any problems. Smile at them, chat it up if you like. Most folks are nice folks and that includes police and park rangers.
My final tip for SC would be don't let anyone see you leaving the road or getting back on the road in the morning. In areas of low population, most people know each other, which means if they don't know you, they're wondering what you're up to. The truth is you're someone on a bike, harmless and friendly and just passing through.
I put technology to good use. I have cameras, a cellphone, a tablet, batteries and chargers and those things let me share my adventures with the people who watch my videos. (You should subscribe to my Youtube Channel because its free and I have lots of great camping advice and adventures!) With Google Maps I can navigate, scope out the terrain ahead and find really good SC sites. Technology also allows me to get weather reports, information which can be mildly interesting to life-saving. I hope that if I go missing someday my cyber trail can lead rescuers to me or my remains, or at least the footage of the pack of wolves closing in on me. I'd like to go out snarling and viral.
With the technology I have seen given unto humanity within my lifetime, and the peace that has descended on the forests of North America, which for centuries were battlegrounds, I realize I have more freedom than anyone who ever roamed this earth. That's why I love Stealth Camping, (and its FREE!)