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Camping for Free Travel Tip

Travel Tip #7- How to sleep outside for free “An uncomfortable bed free is better than a comfortable bed unfree.”-Jack Kerouac In many circumstances, a traveler could find himself outside after nightfall without a place to seek shelter and, in some cases, without the monetary resources to rent a bed even if one was available. [...]

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Travel Tip #7- How to sleep outside for free

“An uncomfortable bed free is better than a comfortable bed unfree.”-Jack Kerouac

In many circumstances, a traveler could find himself outside after nightfall without a place to seek shelter and, in some cases, without the monetary resources to rent a bed even if one was available. Or, if you are traveling by bicycle, hitchhiking, or walking it would be foolish to plan on entering into developed areas every night solely for the purpose of finding shelter. In point, when on the tramp, it is often necessary to sleep under the stars, and, in most instances, the formal campground is not really an option- as I think they are a waste of money. The way I see it, the entire world is one big campground ever welcoming a clever traveler to set up a camp and stay a night- for free. Parks, cemeteries, highway culverts, forests, strip mall roof tops, agricultural fields, abandon beaches, the underside of bridges, and caves usually have open vacancy for all travelers passing by. No reservations are even required. But be careful, finding a place to camp on the sly can be a slightly perilous pursuit, though always a true adventure.

Camping on the sly

At the start of this travel tip I would like to say that camping on the sly has limited use in some countries, and in others it is not really necessary. For example, if you are traveling by public transport, which generally jumps from population center to population center and are in a cheap country, the need to camp out is greatly diminished. If you can get a nearby room for between $2-$5 then it is an unnecessary risk to sleep outside. Travelers get robbed in Latin America. Travelers disappear in Africa. The same can be said of many other regions of the world. I remember reading a post by Andy the Hobo Traveler.com where he wrote about travelers who disappear while camping on the sly in Africa, and I must say that it is true:

“A person has to be a Fou, has to be a NUT, and has to want to die to live in a tent and camp in West Africa. NOTE: Just because you never heard of a person, dying when they are camping does not mean it does not happen. A missing traveler is only missed by his family and friends, they just vanish.” -Andy the Hobotraveler.com, from his blog post I Was Once Lost But Now I Am Found

So I must assert here that if you are traveling in a potentially dangerous country where you can get a cheap room without too much difficulty (Central and South America, Africa, parts of Asia), take it. I feel that the risk to money ratio in these places directs one to err on the side of safety. But if you are traveling an expensive country like Europe, the USA, Canada, Japan, a somewhat benign country like China; are riding a bike, walking, or hitch-hiking and cannot have regular access to cheap accommodation, or you truly do not have any money, I write this travel tip for you based off of my own experience.

Places to Sleep:

Under ordinary circumstances a traveler would want to find a place to sleep that is secure and where there is little chance of being found. But beward, if you happen to be found in such a remote location it could mean trouble. The very discreet nature of camping on the sly means that if you are perchance detected by a group of drunks, thieves, or angry landowners there will probably be nobody to come to your aid. It is both safer and more dangerous to sleep in remote locations. Be careful, choose your camp wisely.

Good places where I usually try to camp

1. Forests or woods near highways far away from any city or town.
2. In the bushes near expressway junctures or by on and off ramps. Usually people, unless hitchhiking or weird, do not frequent areas near major express ways.
3. Along hiking trails in the mountains or forests. This is just like formal camping only without paying. It is a good move to prepare in advance to sleep in such places, as sometimes it takes a little time to find trail heads or get to the nature area.
4. Under bridges outside of the realm of urban influence. Get far away from cities before sleeping under a bridge least you may have some unexpected company.
5. Hotel parking lots if you have a vehicle. In adjacent fields if you are on foot or bike. Hotels often own mowed fields with trees and bushes for shelter.
6. If in Asia you can sleep in old shrines, monasteries, and temples. These have long been the sleeping places for travelers in East Asia. Old religious buildings provide for great nights of sleep.
7. On hills that overlook small villages. Often times hill tops around small villages are left vacant. Climbing up during the day will allow you to find a good place to camp.
8. On beaches. Be sure to get into a part of the beach that will probably not be frequented by mid-night frolickers.
9. Universities. If you are young looking, you can usually pull off being on university campuses late at night. Just act like you belong there and find yourself a sleeping place in advance during the day light hours. If you are accosted by a security guard just act offended and say that you are a student. If you are in a foreign country just speak your native tongue and try to brush off your aggressor.

Bad places that I usually try to avoid camping

1. In or anywhere near cities.
2. Parks, unless nature reserves, very, very large, or you find a really good place to camp.
3. Highly trafficked areas. Sometimes even rural areas attract a large amount of early morning traffic. Get away from roads or paths. Just because a place seems deserted at night, does not mean that it will be in the morning.
4. Abandon buildings. You never know what you may find inside.

Things to consider when camping on the sly

1. Is the location out of the zone of urban influence? Try to avoid sleeping in cities or near them if you can help it. Large cities can have a zone of influence of around 50 km; to camp on the sly within this radius requires a good amount of diligence. Be careful, even if a location outside of a city seems to be agricultural, it could still be within the zone of urban influence. If you are hitchhiking, biking, or walking as a means of traveling, think twice before entering into a large urban area if you are not sure that you can get out before nightfall.
2. Will you be hidden? Opt out of an area that people my frequent after nightfall. If you are on a beach, get away from any area that may attract people partying in the night. In point, find somewhere that is a little difficult to get to.
3. Will you be detected as you get in and set up camp? If you have to walk past populated areas to get to a possible place to camp, then you may want to reconsider it. Try to find a place that people do not really go.
4. Do you think the police patrol the area? The police are a traveler’s biggest danger in any country. If caught by the police, be honest about everything. Usually they will just tell you to be careful and let you camp out the night.
5. What day of the week is it? Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights are often blossom with drunks in many areas. Stay away from all potential drinking areas- accessible beaches included.

When to go in and when to leave

Get in late and get out early. This is a general rule for camping on the sly. But in some more remote areas, especially if you have a bicycle and real camping equipment, setting up camp before sundown could be a really good idea, and it is sometimes nice to have a nice restful morning after waking up in the middle of a beautiful forest.

I just always have a paranoia about people noticing me going into a place that I would like to sleep in. I want to have a clear mind to enjoy a beautiful night outside; I do not want to be thinking about who saw me preparing my camp and if they are going to surprise me in the night. Here are some tips if you are caught camping by an unfriendly intruder:

1. Act cool. I was once woken up by a crack addict in the middle of the night once while sleeping in a hotel field near New York City. I acted cool, and told the the guy where I thought he could buy some crack in the hotel. I turned out to be right.
2. Act like a lunatic. Seriously, I believe that most people in this world think that people who sleep outside are potentially nuts. Act crazy. If you have been camping on the sly for a while then you probably look a little disheveled anyway. Run with it.
3. Run. Just jump out of your sleeping bag and run away in your underroos. I do not think that many people want to be chase naked people around in the woods. Once the potential threat is gone you can go back and collect whatever is left of your belongings.
4. Fight. If your intruders are hostile, and you think that you are in danger no matter what you do, fight. It is my feeling that you will have a better chance fighting than meeting aggression with passiveness. If you found a good secluded place to camp, then there will probably not be anybody to come to your aid or any witnesses. I sleep with a knife next to me at all times, though I think I do this just for comfort, I do not plan on ever using it. Running is usually always a better alternative than fighting. You never know what may happen in the night.
5. Yell. Reprimand your potential assailant and act stronger than they are.
6. Listen. The person waking you up may not always have negative intentions. Gauge the situation before you decide on a course of action. People still do nice things in this world; maybe someone is just worried about you sleeping outside and wants to offer assistance. I have had this happen repeatedly in Japan.

I tend to not carry much of anything with me while traveling. I just have a mid-size rucksack that is only scarcely larger than a school child’s back pack and sometimes a supplemental smaller bag. But I do carry the following articles in case I ever need to quickly make camp:

A lighter or waterproof matches
A lightweight sleeping bag
A headlamp or flashlight
A Swiss Army Knife
Some sort of weapon
A plastic tarp, like the ones used on construction sites, is an extremely useful addition to any traveler’s gear assemblage. They are lightweight, durable, waterproof, and, on cold nights, even warm. These tarps can be used for many different purposes while on the road. They can be made into decent tents with a few lengths of rope, they are good to lay down under your sleeping bag, and they can even be used to wrap up in in a rain storm. From where I am standing, the tarp is indespensible.

It may seem a little odd for me to suggest carrying a weapon, but I would not leave the front door of my parent’s farm without one. I carry a one hand quick opening, preferably black bladed knife in my right hand pocket, a sheathed hunting knife on the front of my belt (not the back ), and sometimes I have been known to travel with a large “walking” stick. Up to now- 8 years- I have not had to use any of them. If I were in a situation in which I needed to use any of these weapons it would seriously need to be a life or death situation, and I honestly do not know how I would fare. It would take a very dire situation to provoke me to pull my knife, but I do know that if I ever have to do so, I had better try my best to use it quickly. Because I know that if someone is bold enough to threaten my life, they probably will not be intimidated by my four inch hunting knife. I do believe that running away or submitting to attacks is usually a better option than fighting back. In eight years, I have been attacked three times- two times I fought back just enough to get away, and once I completely submitted. I believe I acted appropriately in each instance. My only advice here is to trust your instincts . . . they usually know best.

Camping on the sly conclusion

If you are traveling by bicycle, walking, or hitchhiking, then you should prepare to sleep outside often, but if you are generally traveling by public transport between population centers then it is rare that you cannot find a room (the problem is if you can afford to sleep in it ). In Europe and Japan the cost of a cheap place to stay is far beyond my means, and I find myself seeking free accommodation or the woods almost every night- and I plan accordingly. But in Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia I find that am rarely ever financially required to seek refuge outside. I usually spend between $5-$12 a day in these places including a decent bed, and I live like a king- to sleep outside in these places would only be for the fun and adventure of doing so, or to get to really remote areas.

In all, camping on the sly is fun, it requires you use all of your senses and intuition, is always exciting, and sometimes even frightening. In my opinion, this is what traveling is all about.This travel tip is only backed by my own experience. my experience is all that I know. As always, take it or leave it.

Filed under: Accommodation, Budget Travel, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

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  • Wade | vagabondjourney.com September 2, 2009, 12:42 pm

    Two times they were undercover police with nothing better to do. The other time was by thugs who wanted my money.

    Though I am still here.


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  • Francine May 22, 2012, 11:49 am

    Hi Wade

    I enjoyed your articles regarding Iceland. I have been told by a mountain guide that you can camp anywhere in Iceland for one night free. I have also heard that Iceland is the safest place on earth to visit.

    Can you tell me if anyone uses a camp fire for cooking? Is wood easily available? From the pictures I’ve seen there are no trees 🙂


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    • Wade Shepard May 22, 2012, 11:57 am

      You’re right, there are no trees in Iceland. Well, I’m told that there’s a forest in the east, but for the most part don’t count on it. Most travelers use alcohol or butane/ other fuel stoves. It’s not true that you can camp anywhere in Iceland for free, as there are private property rights that should be respected. In the mountains, sure, you can camp, but if there’s a fence I would not recommend climbing over it: there is not much in the Icelandic landscape to hide behind. It’s true that Iceland is pretty safe.

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  • Sarah Rivka Schechter March 11, 2014, 5:49 pm

    Another idea if you have a vehicle: Once, on a trip, I slept in the car in the parking lot of a 24-hour grocery store, for almost the entire trip. Didn’t pay a penny for accommodations on that trip! (The only expenses were the flight and the car rental.) (For part of the time I stayed at friends’ houses. That was free also. I suppose I could have done that the entire trip but I didn’t want to wear out my welcome.)

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