This post is written by Alissa Bell, an amazing adventurer to share the ultimate wild camping tip here. Please visit her website (https://exploringwild.com) to get more travel tips. Thank you Alissa for this great post!!
Ultimate Advice for Wild Camping on a Bike Tour
When you’re traveling by bicycle, wild camping makes a lot of sense. You can sleep for free wherever you happen to finish the day’s miles, using only the camping gear you carry on your bike. It’s a cheap and flexible way to travel, but it can sometimes be stressful. As the afternoon passes, you may start to worry about finding a safe and legal place to sleep.
The term “wild camping” can mean different things in different places, so let’s define it. We’re talking about camping somewhere that is not a designated campground, usually in rural or remote areas. Sometimes it’s also called “free camping” or “stealth camping,” though each of these can have slightly different implications.
The challenge with discussing wild camping is that the world is a very big place, and wild camping is a very different experience depending on where you are. This makes it hard to give wild camping advice that applies to Ethiopia, for example, in the same way it applies to France.
I certainly haven’t camped everywhere, but I’ve explored a number of countries on my bicycle: Egypt and Sudan in northern Africa; Chile and Argentina at the tip of South America; Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in Southeast Asia; and my home country, the United States. I’m also a voracious reader of bike travel stories and the founder of bikesleepbike.com, so I have wild camped all over the world vicariously through other travelers. In this post I’ll discuss whether wild camping is a good idea, and how to do it safely, comfortably, and responsibly.
(View of Como, Colorado from tent @Alissa Bell)
Is wild camping legal?
The legal status of wild camping depends on the country you’re in and the type of land you’re moving through. For example, Norway’s famous “right to roam” allows travelers to camp for one night on any uncultivated land even if it’s privately owned. When you cycle in the United States, on the other hand, you will find intimidating “No Trespassing” signs at the edges of private land, but there are large tracts of public land where travelers can camp legally anywhere.
Besides legality, there’s also the question of cultural norms. Rules may say one thing, but in practice you may find a different set of expectations among local people. When riding in an unfamiliar country it’s best to be cautious until you’ve figured out the local attitude toward camping, and to ask locals for their advice on finding campsites.
What happens if you get caught camping illegally? Again, it depends on where you are. Often you will just be asked to leave. You might have to pay a fine if a ranger or policeman catches you. If you’ve camped on private land, you might have to deal with an angry and potentially armed landowner. On the other hand, if the person who discovers you is sympathetic, you could be allowed to stay and even offered a meal and a roof.
(New Mexico USA bikepacking trip @Alissa Bell)
Is wild camping safe?
Almost every bicycle traveler will at some point wonder whether it’s safe to wild camp. There is no easy answer. Most often it is safe, but sometimes it is not. Solo women cyclists often worry even more, because cultural norms cause us to feel more vulnerable, but any traveler can be the unlucky victim of theft or harassment.
So how do we decide if it’s safe to wild camp? Here are some questions to think about. Are you in a place where:
- Wild camping is not legally or culturally accepted?
- Land is heavily populated or farmed and you cannot find a place away from human activity?
- Petty theft is common?
- A big city or large urban area is nearby?
- A known risk like land mines prevents you from exploring off the road?
- It is common for men to drink a lot of alcohol or use other drugs?
- You have an unsafe feeling from interactions you had with locals in the area?
- Women: the local culture considers a woman traveling alone to be unusual and probably sexually available?
If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, you might think twice about wild camping. Even if it will probably be fine, if you are too nervous you won’t get a good night’s sleep. Consider asking for permission to camp in a more obvious area; see more advice below in Alternatives to Wild Camping.
To make this concrete, here are a few examples for specific places:
United States: I feel safe wild camping in remote parts of the US where no one lives, and near very small towns. Near cities and large towns however, I do not wild camp, because this is where I am more likely to be found and where crime is more common. I never camp on private land without permission in the US; it’s both illegal and culturally unacceptable.
Patagonia: In Chile and Argentina on the Carretera Austral route and south to Ushuaia, wild camping is very common and I felt safe almost everywhere, in the remote places and also the small towns.
Northern Africa: In the empty Sahara desert of Sudan I felt safe wild camping, but I would not do it close to a town (there I asked to camp at restaurants instead). The culture considers solo women to be strange, but also values hospitality, and crime rates are very low. In neighboring Ethiopia however, I’ve heard it’s hard to find unpopulated land and theft is more common, so some cyclists are cautious about wild camping there. In Egypt I was not allowed to wild camp and had to camp at police checkpoints.
Southeast Asia: In Laos and Cambodia it was difficult to find places without people, and the risk of landmines prevented me from exploring too far off the roads. Some travelers ask for permission to camp at temples or in villages, but guesthouses are very cheap and easy to find.
Central Asia: Along the Silk Road route in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan it’s common for cyclists to wild camp, but I’ve read that some solo women have had problems with drunk men visiting their campsite during the night. It might be smart to avoid wild camping near populated areas, depending on recent interactions with locals.
Those are just a few examples, but they should give you a sense of how every area is different and presents its own set of factors to consider.
(Dispersed bike camping in Montana @Alissa Bell)
Choosing a Good Campsite
When wild camping we tend to worry more about people, but depending on where you are, natural hazards can be a bigger issue. Here are some rules to keep in mind when choosing campsites in wild environments.
- In deserts, don’t camp in dry streambeds or washes that might flood suddenly if it rains nearby.
- In forests, look up for dead branches or trees and don’t camp where they could fall on you.
- In cold weather, avoid camping at the lowest points in valleys or canyons where the coldest air collects.
- In bear habitats like the western US and Canada, follow good food storage practices: don’t cook where you sleep, and hang your food and dishes somewhere away from your campsite.
- Don’t camp in the middle of game trails or other areas with signs of recent large animal activity. Also don’t camp on top of ant hills!
(Wild Camping in Argentina @Alissa Bell)
How to Avoid Being Seen
If you’re wild camping where you want to not be discovered, follow these tips.
- Arrive after dark or just around sunset, and leave around sunrise.
- Avoid using any light at camp, including your stove. It may help to cook and eat dinner before stopping to camp.
- Near roads, choose sites on the insides of curves where headlights won’t shine. If you can’t find cover, choose uphill sites instead of downhill; drivers are less likely to look above them than below.
- Wait until no traffic is coming before you leave the road. If you think curious people might see your tracks and come to investigate, lift your bike over the edge of the road or cover your tracks.
- Avoid areas with signs of frequent human activity: fire rings, foot paths, trash or food scraps, footprints.
- Cover large reflectors on your bike and tent.
- Don’t leave things outside that might give away information about you. For example, solo women might want to bring shoes or clothes inside the tent in places where they feel vulnerable.
- Before you set up your tent, spend a few minutes in your potential camp spot to make sure it feels good. If it doesn’t, find a different place. It would probably be fine anyway, but it’s important to pick a place where you’ll feel comfortable so you can get a good night’s sleep.
(Bike camping in Oregon, USA @Alissa Bell)
How to Wild Camp Responsibly
In some areas the land is already marred by human activity and your presence won’t make a difference. But if you’re in a remote and pristine place, it’s good to leave it as nice as you found it. Here are tips for camping responsibly:
- Put your tent on durable surfaces like dirt or leaves, not on delicate growing plants.
- Don’t camp right next to water if it’s the only source nearby, because you’ll prevent animals from coming to drink.
- If you wash dishes, clothes, or your body, don’t empty wash water directly into water sources; pour it into a hole instead.
- Always pack out what you brought in, including food scraps, wrappers, and fruit peels.
- When you go to the bathroom, dig a hole at least 6 inches deep to bury solid waste.
- Avoid making a campfire in very dry areas when forest fires are easily started. If you do make a campfire, keep it small and try to make it on dirt or rock so it doesn’t leave a scar. Always make sure it’s fully out before you leave it unattended.
What to do with your bike?
In remote areas with no people, it’s not necessary to lock your bike at all. If you’re camped where people might find you, it would be smart to secure your bike, even if just so you can sleep without worry.
If you carry a bike lock and there are trees or other structures nearby, lock your bike to something solid. If there is nothing to lock to, lock your front wheel to your frame (so the bike can’t roll) and put it near your tent.
Some people tie a line from their tent to their bike, or wrap one of the guy lines around the wheel or frame. This means they will feel the tent shake if someone tries to move the bike. You could also attach a bell, pot, or other noisy object to the line for extra security.
In places where you worry about securing your bike, it’s best to also bring your panniers or bike bags into your tent at night.
(Wild Camping in Sudan @Alissa Bell)
What to do if you’re discovered?
If someone discovers your hidden campsite, use your best judgment. If you feel comfortable with the person, you can probably stay. Most often it will be a curious local who just wants to know why you are there or find out if you need anything.
On the other hand, if you get a bad feeling about the person’s intentions it might be smart to pack up and move, even if it seems difficult and unpleasant in the middle of the night.
(Bike camping at Chaco Trade Post @Alissa Bell)
Alternatives to Wild Camping
If stealth camping doesn’t feel right, try asking for permission from local people to camp on their land. Once you’re accepted by a family, you are usually less likely to be hassled because everyone knows that someone else knows you’re there. Some cyclists say they choose houses carefully, looking for signs of children and families with lovingly maintained (but not obsessively neat) houses.
In small towns you can also ask at official establishments. Depending on which country you’re in, try asking at churches, temples, police stations or checkpoints, schools, medical centers, or restaurants.
If there is a language barrier, carry a picture of your tent so you can point to it, or perhaps even an introduction letter translated into the local language. Prepare some creative hand gestures too. In countries where recreational camping isn’t common, it can be hard to explain what you are asking for.
(Alissa in Vietnam @Alissa Bell)
Wild camping is often one of the best parts of bicycle travel. Sleeping under the stars allows us to connect with a place more deeply and experience it fully. If you’re nervous about wild camping, know that many people do it often and never have problems. Follow the advice above, trust your instincts, and assess each new place as you go. May you enjoy freedom, self-sufficiency, and many peaceful nights under the stars.
About the Author, Alissa Bell
I love wide open spaces, human-powered adventure, and getting in just a bit over my head (in a good way). When home with my husband in California I work as a writer, software developer, and web consultant on a number of different projects that I’m passionate about. You can find my work at exploringwild.com, where I write guides for hikers, bikepackers, and travelers, or at bikesleepbike.com where I feature stories from other bicycle travelers.