I am often asked how it is that I manage to find a spot to camp each night as I travel the roads and waterways of the US and Canada. My answer is almost always the same, there is always a small piece of scruff land on which to make camp or the kindness of a stranger who is willing to open their home or yard to a wayward traveler. These are of course broad generalizations so I thought I would break down my philosophy and approach to the task of nightly camping into a little more detail.
First, I have to lay out a few rules that I have chosen to follow and rarely do I find that I am forced to break any of them. If land is posted then I respect the posting and don't camp there. If the land is fenced, then that is an implicit posting and I don't cross the line. I have traveled enough now to know that if someone really does not want you on their property it is either fenced, posted, or both. Therefore, if those don't exist I consider the land fair game for low impact, in and out camping.
To me, low impact in and out camping, what some call 'Stealth Camping', means that I am not going to cut down trees, or build fires, or do any other kind of damage to the land on which I sleep. What I am going to do is leave absolutely no trace that I was ever there. I think that this is very important for the traveler as it sets the precedent that we respect the land and respect that it has remained un-posted and available for use. Lastly, as for rules, it is critical to know if there are local rules that may explicitly bar you from a certain area or a certain type of land. A good example of this is say Maine, where the islands actually belong to people and that ownership goes all the way down to the water. This makes all islands by default off-limits unless specifically stated otherwise. In Canada, the line from the waters edge to the high water mark belongs to the Crown, and is thus available for public use.
So, with rules in place, , how do I go about finding a place to stay. I think that for me, the approach or strategy is different for the types of locations that I am traveling through. If you are in the complete wilderness, such as the Inside Passage, the act of camping is easy, just find a place and camp, it is almost all pure wilderness and national park. However, traveling through populated areas it could be broken down into Rural, Urban, and Suburban areas.
The first part of my camping strategy lies in my daily route planning. Unless I have a pre-arranged place to stay, I always try and work my day such that I don't end up in a city or town during the camping hours. Camping hours for me are generally about an hour or two before darkness, so that is when I begin my search for an acceptable place to stay. I personally have a difficult time with camping in very populated Urban areas, so I attempt to avoid them at all costs. Not paying attention to your map and daylight is a great way to find yourself in a densely populated area struggling to find a place to sleep.
However, should you find that the day is coming to a close, and you can not make it through a heavily populated area, then my top choices are fire departments and then churches. Local establishments make for great places to gather intelligence on where you might stay or who might be willing to host you. Taking the time to stop and ask about locations generally provides you with either a safe place to stay or even offers of support. Strangely enough, asking for permission to camp on someones land generally has not worked well for me, so I choose the old adage of begging forgiveness rather than asking permission. In the event that nothing comes of asking, I have found that the edges of the town are much less populated and offer good opportunities to stay behind old buildings or establishments. Getting to these after dark and leaving before light is sure to minimize the chance of any type of confrontation.
For both Rural and Suburban areas I maintain that there is always a piece of land to sleep on. My favorite location is pure woods, especially those that have no homes or establishments anywhere near by. It is amazing how in tune dogs are to strangers in the area and there is nothing worse than knowing that you are the cause of that dog's incessant barking. Making sure there is a good amount of distance between you and anyone else really helps with any feeling of angst you might have.
Second, in the event that pure woods don't exist, there is almost always a stretch of land, generally wooded, that serves as a buffer between roads and utility lines. Most people don't like the sight of power lines, thus these buffers work great at buffering the utility lines and the camper from the roadside sight line. In addition, the utility companies need to get to the lines, so there is most likely a cleared area that works perfect for camping as well as some easy access point for you and your bike. I would say that I camp at places like this more than half of the time, unless I am in extremely sparsely populated areas.
The other option in rural/suburban areas are small pockets of woods that have a dense layer of foliage on the road side, often found between communities or industrial developments. Finding these pockets enables you to get back into the woods and have a good sight buffer between your camp and cars that are passing by. I often look for game trails that have been worn into the woods because these almost always serve as good entry and exit paths for myself and the bike. Animals are generally wary of humans so these paths are often at locations that don't have large numbers of people surrounding them, thus making excellent sites for camping.
The real trick to all of this is to be patient and be confident that a good place to sleep always exists. You must also develop a feeling of comfort, and trust in this feeling, so that when you find a location that does not feel right, you are willing to pass on it. I think that this is critical to finding safe and secure camp sites because you really learn to develop a good instinct about locations and their viability as a safe and secure place to sleep.
Stealth camping often gets a bad rap on the internet as something dirty or illegal. I think that we all have the right to travel and that there should be legitimate options for camping in the wild, even if that means areas that are populated. The current price of staying in state parks is around $17-$24 a night, which is just an unreasonable amount for any long distance, low budget traveller to afford, especially those under human power. In the US, we also don't have a network of hostels or other low budget options available to us, so we are therefore forced to either spend large amounts of money for nightly lodging or to look for viable low impact alternatives that allow us to travel on very small budgets. I don't need amenities each night, just a simple place to lay out my tent, bivy, or hammock; cook my simple dinner and breakfast; and get a good nights rest.
My top locations:
Pine Forest Woods
Small pockets of dense woods
Utility lines with good buffers between the lines and the road
Volunteer Fire Departments (power and water can often be found here)
Churches (power and water can often be found here)
USFS/NFS primitive camp sites (generally these are free or 4-5 dollars/night)
Asking in very small towns if camping in town parks is ok
Buildings on the outskirts of towns that are vacant with ground behind them and limited lighting