Stealth Camping

Stealth Camping is the art of camping discretely in the countryside. It may be a place where camping is not 'allowed' or approved of.

In England and Wales it is illegal to camp almost anywhere without first seeking the owner's permission. In reality, it will not be practical to identify an owner for many wild places. So, in the UK if you camp in the mountains you are probably breaking the law in the same way as if you camped in someone's front garden.

In practice, whilst someone will object to you camping in their garden - because they can see you - they are much less likely to complain if you are camped on some isolated piece of mountain or moorland where you cannot be seen.

The same laws are still being broken but the risk of upsetting someone is much less.

This means that if you wish to stealth camp then there is a set of skills that you should master. Naturally, I cannot condone any of it.

The basic skills covered are:

  1. Choosing a camp site for Stealth Camping
  2. Choosing a tent/shelter for Stealth Camping
  3. Choosing time of arrival
  4. Campsite skills
  5. Weather

1. Choosing a Camp Site for Stealth Camping

This may sound obvious but when you are stealth camping should definitely be 'off the beaten track'. If you can see a house, the house can see you. At night your LED head torch can be seen for miles.

So your first rule will be to choose a location that is not in the line of sight of any property.

Next, if you place your campsite next to a motorway then clearly it is going to be seen by a lot of people. So, most definitely do not camp near a marked path. In some terrain a mere trip of 100 metres will be sufficient to shield you from other travellers. In other terrains it might be much larger.

Ideally your campsite location will have natural camouflage.

Forests are an obvious good choice. You do not have to wander far into most forests before you are quite well hidden from the outside of the forest. Less than 50 metres is often all it takes in mature woodland.

In the mountains and even on moorland the ground is very rarely flat. Since a tent is only a metre or so high all you need is some topographical variation of a metre or so to hide you from most casual onlookers.

I did actually manage to completely loose my own campsite once simply because the clouds came down and the light went. I knew I was less than 30 metres from it, but do you think I could find it?

On a recent trip (23/03/2007) I came across an ideal stealth site on an otherwise open moorland. It was a large tree surrounded by metre high gorse bushes. Since most of the ground around was at or below the same level it should be clear that if you pitched a tent that was less than a metre tall behind the bushes it would not be seen. I was very tempted to use that site (which was also well-sheltered as shown by many deer tracks leading to it) but the views were dire.

My personal choice for stealth camping is often to camp somewhere in the heart of a deciduous forest and to use some sort of woodland Camo tent or tarp. In the forest I will choose a small site that is surrounded by trees and is therefore at least partially obscured.

2. Choosing a Tent/Shelter for Stealth Camping

If your tent is a bright orange colour it will be visible for miles. All naturally orange creatures either learnt to fly or got eaten or became poisonous. Orange is not a good colour choice.

If your tent is green or gray or black then it will blend with most terrains. If your tent is a DPM (i.e. camouflage) then it will tend to blend very well unless you are using say a winter pattern in summer.

If your tent has a strong outline made of solid lines it will stand out strongly. Ideally a tent will not have a straight edge outline and will be low in profile.

If you want to be really discrete then you need to think like the army.

If I want to camp somewhere quietly then what I will tend to do is use a camouflage tarp and place it in a location where it will blend - such as a forest or a mixed moorland - and pitch it in a way that it fits in with the surroundings - typically low to the ground.

In the ideal scenario I want my tarp to be lower than nearby topography so that it cannot be seen even from a few metres and also so that if I shine a torch around it is less likely to be seen.

In this picture the front pole is 1m high and is painted black. The back pole is around 60cm high.

It is worth noting that in some places in the countryside using a DPM/#amo tarp may well get you mistaken for the military. This can be a VERY BAD idea.

On a recent trip (23/03/2007) I had a bit of a paradox. I had with me an ultralight tarp that was made of blue spinnaker cloth. Blue is not a natural colour and is visible to the naked eye for miles. I was also camping in an area with little natural cover and one that is quite popular with walkers. In the end I pitched at night and did so nestled amongst a clump of trees out of direct line of sight of several paths that crisscross the area. The blue would be noticeable in daylight but not so much at night.

Stealth Camp tarp

The above is from a trip I took in May. Here I am camped in a small wood. I am camped at least 50m from the nearest path. The tarp is no more than 1 metre tall (at the front) and the tarp colour-scheme blends in with the surround. There is also no direct line of site from the tarp to the path. The tent poles are painted black and the guy-ropes are black.

stealth camping tarp

Here is another pitch on another day. You can see that the tarp is surrounded by trees and there a lot of vegetation on the forest floor. The tent poles are almost invisible as are the guyines. The edges of the tarp are blurred by the vegetation

Finally, here is a site after camp has been removed. In a few days the vegetation will spring back.

forest site after decamping

If you are not keen on tents then a bivi bag that is brown or Camo will be almost invisible from even very short distances. In fact a bivi bag is often far better than a tent for discretion. Even close up a bivy in a forest can look just like a pile of dirt.

3. Choosing your time of arrival

If you arrive at 2pm in the afternoon and set up camp you will be noticed. If you arrive after dark you are less likely to be noticed. I tend to find that the best time to arrive at a remote site is around dusk and an hour or so before sunset. This gives you ample time to find a suitable camping spot (assuming that your original choice of location was OK.

If you are familiar with the location and/or the terrain then it might be possible to arrive at or after dark but this can just add to the risk of not finding a site. It is simpler just to pick a quiet spot.

4. Campsite Skills

A lot of this depends on how close you are to civilisation. For example then if you are not within 5 miles of civilisation then no amount of noise is going to be noticed. Conversely if you are near a planned camping site then any loud noises will be heard.

Obviously, if you are being really discrete you will have to be careful about lighting. LED lamps have very strong beams that can be seen for considerable distances. Red lamps will stand out less well but can still be seen for some distance - after all cyclists rely on it. Red is also much better for night vision whereas blue/white kills it.

If you have a good location for a site - for example one surrounded by natural barriers then light is much less of an issue because

Fires are a definite no-no. Not only are they destructive but smoke can be seen for miles and miles in calm weather. Cooking on alcohol or gas or white gas / parafin does not produce any visible smoke and of course not cooking at all produces no smoke.

If you are really worried about things like IR signatures then you are either in the forces or on the run from the police! Either way I am not going to help you...

Finally, the "Leave No Trace" ethos should be applied. If you need to dig a cat-hole make sure it is at least six inches deep and that you fill it in afterward.

5. Weather!

This may not be immediately obvious but weather makes an enormous difference to stealth camping.

Snow and winter conditions can create all sorts of new natural barriers that mean that it is easy to disguise a campsite and be safe from wandering eyes.

Fog and mist are excellent for hiding a camp site and dampen both sound and light significantly. Fog and mist is so effective that I once lost my own bloody campsite by just walking a few yards away from it!!!

The only real warning is that fog that rolls in can also roll out. Sometimes the fog will clear in the light and you will be in plain sight in the morning. You will then need to rely on the basics such as choice of location.