While cycle touring or bikepacking around the planet it’s often necessary to sleep in random places. So far I have enjoyed the comfort of sleeping in places as diverse as a bus shelter, a mosque, a Buddhist monastery, outside petrol stations in Turkey and Chile or on the tops of mountains in Tibet. Why you ask?
Put simply, sometimes you just can’t ride far enough to reach a hotel, civilization or even a decent camp spot if you wanted to. Therefore you have to be self sufficient and be prepared to catch some sleep in the safest, most comfortable camping spot you can find.
Finally as most long haul cyclists know: the less nights you spend money, the more nights you get to go cycle touring!
- Keeping a stealthy spot secret – In more populated or just sketchy feeling areas you can scope out a stealthily hidden camp spot in daylight and remember where/what it looks like. Then cycle onwards to innocently cook your dinner a mile or so away. Then return to put you tent up under the cover of darkness, safe in the knowledge where you area and that no one has seen you nor will they disturb you.
- Blending in – Always buy a tent in a darker colour, green ideally and then practise erecting it so much you know how to do it in the dark. Better still use a bivvy bag rather than a tent – it is far less conspicuous and easier to pack and unpack, but it’s less good for covering your kit from rain or prying eyes! Learning how to put your tent up in the dark means no bright light, this is important because a torch beam can be seen for miles, – something that quickly spikes curiosity in locals. While being seen probably doesn’t matter, it’s better than being woken up by an investigating dog walker or axe murderer in the dark.The picture below is the morning after we camped 20 metres from the border of Afghanistan, we didn’t use a torch as we tried to make sure we were hidden from the Afghan horsemen/camel herders riding in the hills but it was hard to be discreet in such open terrain:
- Avoid managed farm fields – Try to avoid farmer’s fields especially with crops or livestock. A field may look peaceful, but farmers get angry as do cows and this rarely ends well. Farmers also get up very very early to cut things, spray things, plough things and more pressingly shoot things etc. In Hungary we camped on a patch of grass beside a field of Maize and the farmer went deer shooting in the maize overnight – it wasn’t a comfortable experience being hidden there! However if you ask a farmer first you might well be invited to use a field. Just don’t pitch your tent unannounced or you might be in for a surprise.
- Go with your gut – Don’t be afraid to ask people and go with your gut feeling. Oftern people sitting outside their house in the evenings are a good option or even in shops or restaurants, failing that you can just knock on a friendly looking door, it is scary and using some well researched statistics (I didn’t just make up):
40% of the time you will be helped to find a great safe spot to camp.
20% of the time you will be invited to sleep in a spare room or a friends spare room and have an unforgettable experience (mostly in a good way)
20% of the time you will get a blank look and a door slammed in your face!
15% of the time you will be taken to their friends fancy and expensive B&B/hotel creating an awkward situation
5% of the time you will be abducted and never see the light of day again, only joking it is that 5% of the time you will suspect you will be abducted but in reality all is good!
- Security of kit – Where you can’t lock your bike up to something at a camp spot, tie it to the tent using some thin, hidden string, maybe drop the chain off the front rings or my favourite is to balance a loud metal saucepan+lid on it, either way you will wake up in time to see any potential thief as he tries to pedal off. Don’t be too paranoid but for a couple of minutes effort it’s a good practice in less remote areas. Always put bags into the tent porch or attach them to a bivvy bag with string too.
- Site geography selection – When in the mountains be careful to fully assess what might happen because weather can change fast and get super dangerous overnight while you’re happily asleep;
- Imagine the worst rain possible, think how much that little stream might flood in a narrow valley, because unfortunately flash floods happen and pretty suddenly too. Often the heavy rain might be further upstream so you’ll be oblivious. I speak from experience and even the level of a lake rising quickly lapped near our tent one night! High tides on beaches should be obvious too but not always!
- Think about the strongest wind possible and set up your camp sheltered from it as much as possible. It is surprising how winds can drop at dusk but then howl through the night.
- Look above you and see if the slope is likely to have rocks falling. Especially when it is frozen and thawing. In this picture from Kyrgyzstan it started snowing overnight totally out of the blue;
- Country specific tips:
- Albania it’s probably a lot safer than it feels.
- In Chile the police seemed to find us with surprisingly frequency. A flash of a torch in your face might spark fear but when they discover you’re a tourist they just want to say hello and how much they like Margaret Thatcher.
- In the USA and Canada be careful in national parks as you will get arrested or fined for breaking the camping rules a lot more easily than you might expect….
- In Romania the south is very different to the north for finding safe wild camping spots – the wilder north is much easier
- Avoid wild camping near cities if possible, plan stops and routes so you can be well clear of urban areas.
- In areas with bears like Eastern Europe and N. America follow the bear safety tips because trust me there’s nothing scarier than a Grizzly bear stomping around your tent except a Grizzly bear stomping around your tent when you remember there’s a pack of bacon in you rucksack.
- In the central Asian mountains camp either very near yurts or a long way away to avoid wolves/Jackals/stray dogs becoming too inquisitive.
- Coastal camping – Beaches can be the best places or the worst places depending how popular the area is. If it is popular and illegal the police will be wise to campers and most likely move you on, if it’s remote and deserted than go for it, in Turkey along the Black Sea especially we had no problems, but in the Med we have been moved on in Croatia where it always seems busier. Again a bivvy bag is perfect for beaches – is it camping or just sun bathing in the moonlight?
- Bugs – Never leave your shoes outside the tent in areas as it is surprisng how much nasty scorpions, huge spiders, snakes etc. like your shoes and kit. Unfortunately wild camp spots will often be alive with creepy crawlies (sorry not meant to be scary but it’s true).
- Mind games and common sense – Lets face it, the fear of something happening rather than the reality is the biggest issue with wild camping. We’ve had a few close encounters with bears, wolves, jackals, strong winds, heavy rains, goat herders, wild dogs, all across 12 years experience but nothing ever came to anything serious. We might think we had trouble e.g. a group of men surrounding the tent in a Slovakian forest who turned out to be innocent mushroom pickers, the man with a large dog and in full furs with a big knife in the Kazakhstan mountains was checking I was warm enough and so the list of unexpected positives of wild camping goes on.
So get out there and see the night sky and save some money too. Just remember to leave absolutely no trace you were ever there.