Many of the areas that I’ve paddled have built up shoreline with houses coming almost to the water and parks, if they exist at all, more than a day’s paddle away, or parks that don’t allow camping. During a multi-day kayaking or canoeing trip, if you want to camp in these areas, you’ll camp on private property at some point — known as stealth camping. In a few countries, such as Norway, you have the right to access, which means that you can camp freely on wildlands and other private lands. In Norway, as long as the land is uncultivated, you can pretty much camp there (see the Outdoor Recreation Act). Most of the time where I paddle, we don’t have that right to access, which means at points I’m probably going to be technically breaking the law. And unless you attempt to sleep in your kayak or canoe there’s really no way around it. The question becomes, how do you do it without getting in trouble or making a mess of things.
First, approach the landowner if you find them. Most land owners are going to understand your plight and allow you to set up a camp, especially if you are respectful and polite. Let them know what you’re doing, where you’re going and why you’re approaching them. Also, make sure they know that you won’t start a fire or have a party and that you’ll be quiet and go to bed early. The closest that I’ve ever been to being turned away was when seven of us wanted to camp in five different tents in someone’s yard. We agreed upon some ground rules, followed them and were gone in the morning before the landowners left for work. If you get turned away, ask the landowner if you can leave your boats on their shore while you talk to the neighbors. Then move from house to house until you find a place to camp.
If you can’t find the landowner, you need to make a judgment call. Landowners that find people camping on their land without permission aren’t likely to be as kind as if you approach them first. In cases like this when you have no choice, look for something secluded, out of the way and somewhere that won’t likely be visited. When you set up camp, make sure to do it quickly and stay in your tenting area. Don’t do anything that would leave a trace, such as starting a fire. Be quiet and respectful. Try to rise early and leave early. I’ve only been confronted once. I apologized, explained the situation and when he eased up we had a nice conversation.
Sometimes you might paddle past a park that doesn’t offer camping. In smaller towns, you can often call the police or county sheriff and receive permission to camp there. They’ll make it a point to drive by during the night and check on you to make sure you’re okay and nobody is bothering you. In my experience, waterside parks can often turn into party areas on the weekends, so having police presence is worthwhile.
In places such as Michigan and on the Mississippi River, the shoreline to the high water mark or the islands are considered public. While on the Michigan shoreline camping may not be permitted at least you know you’re not trespassing by being there. Check the laws in the areas you’ll be paddling to see if any allow public access to beaches.
Some shorelines might be public, but don’t allow camping. In cases as this, treat it like using private property where you can’t find the landowner.
Stealth Camping Gear
Ideally, you want to use a tent that is gray or green, such as the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2. The green of the Seedhouse blends in very well in the woods and on stone beaches. Gray silnyon, such as the stuff used to make Integral Design’s tarps, also blend in well. Flip your canoe or kayaks upside down and try to tuck it into the woods away from shore, but keep it close to your tent. If you have a land owners permission, make sure to store everything close together — don’t turn his backyard into your personal gear closet.
For the rest of the gear, buy stuff that is subtle in colors, because even a quick flash of a bright red sleeping bag can attracted attention. If you think you’re going to have to stealth camp, don’t buy anything that’s a bright color.
Don’t get cocky. It’s not cool to have to stealth camp; it’s more of a necessity of long distance paddling, and the result of poor public planning and bad private property laws. But, you have to deal with it, so find the landowner and talk to the police before you set up camp.
Like Ninjas? Then check out Ninja Paddling – The Path of the Ninja Paddler.