First Time "Stealth Camping"

When I was planning my first cross-country bicycle tour in 2011, I was clueless. Changing a flat tire? Adjusting a derailleur? Nope. I didn’t even know what the “toothed thingy” on the back wheel was called.  And I didn't know how to stealth camp.

The first time I heard the phrase “stealth camping,” I was sitting across a tiny table from Garrett Russell. As jittery and excited as if I was meeting with a celebrity, I peppered him with questions and scribbled his answers furiously into my notebook. “Where did you stay?" I’d just asked, glancing up from my journal.  The coffee shop hummed around us.  Glasses clinked and the espresso machine hissed to life.

"We stayed with a lot of Warmshowers hosts. We stayed in some campgrounds." Then he leaned forward, "And, you know, we stealth camped."

I nodded vigorously, but my pen just hovered above the paper.  Had I heard him right? Stealth camp?  What did it mean? It sounded like something they train you for in the military, not a bicycle touring tactic.  

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“What kind of camping, did you say?" I asked, trying to sound casual. My eyes flicked upwards to meet Garrett's. Maybe this was a dumb question that I should already know the answer to. Maybe, by asking, I'd reveal that I was unfit for this endeavor.

“Stealth camping." He repeated. “You know, pulling over into bushes at the side of the road. Camping wherever." He took a sip from his mug. My mind was blown.

Supposedly, touring cyclists did that type of thing all the time, pitching their tent anywhere that suited them. It was illegal, technically, but we were cyclists. Touring cyclists. And we could do as we pleased, provided we were sneaky.

The reason bicyclists love it is because it's cheap. It's free, actually, unless you get caught. And while it's difficult to stash your car or truck in a place where no one will notice, it's very easy to hide your bike. You haul it into the bushes at the side of the road, and it disappears. Magic.

Visible by day, invisible by night...

Visible by day, invisible by night...

But on the fifth night of my bicycle tour, halfway up McKenzie Pass between Eugene and Sisters, Oregon (and, I might add, halfway between two very cushy guest beds in the houses of kind strangers) I wasn’t sure this was a good idea. I liked the idea of being a rebel, but I was intimidated by the reality of camping in secret. Peering into the forest beside the road, I searched for a suitable patch of ground. In the tangled darkness, it was hard to see the forest floor.

The back of my neck prickled with fear. Secluding myself in the quiet outdoors sounded lovely, but the prospect of being found there by a creep in the middle of the night was terrifying. I realized that this was the trouble with concealing my campsite:  no one would know where to look for me.  

That’s what the Spot beacon is for, I reminded myself.  I thought about the little orange and black device in my bike bag.  My parents had split the cost with me, as part of a deal I'd cut with them: I could do this bike tour alone, so long as I carried this little GPS tracker and used it every day.  So far, I'd only used the "OK" button, but there was another option that said "Help", and a third for "911".  If I was in an emergency, no matter how far in the boonies or how non-existent the cell reception, the Spot beacon would call for help via satellite.

But would help arrive before or after I was raped and murdered? I balled my hands into fists, crushing the pads of my bike gloves against my palms. I told myself not to think like that.  It was day five of my bike tour, after all, and I needed to set a precedent.

Taking deep breaths and feeling my heart drum against my ribs, I rolled my bicycle a few yards along the road, gazing into the increasingly-dark spaces between the trees.  The sun would set soon.  I needed to set up camp.

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Seeing a potential spot, I leaned my bike against a large tree trunk beside the road and stepped tentatively into the forest.  My eyes searched the shadowy spaces under the trees in front of me until I suddenly felt a burning sensation on my lower legs.  Looking down, I saw that I’d stepped into a patch of stinging nettles. I hopped backwards, noticing more and more of the green arrowhead-shaped leaves.  They were everywhere. Nettles blanketed the forest floor, interrupted only by a few patches of ferns and the tell-tale yellowing leaves of poison oak.

Nope, I thought, throwing my stinging leg over my bike, Let's stay in a campground tonight.

Eventually, I made peace with stealth camping.  Over the course of four bicycle tours, in which I pedaled over 6,000 miles, I learned how to find impromptu campsites and sleep soundly in unfamiliar terrain. But it took a while.

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