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Stealth Camping: the Path of the Ninja Paddler

not so stealthy stealth camping

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.

stealth camping in MI
Camping on private property with an abandoned cabin.

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.

stealth camping in a marina
Stealth camping in a marina that didn't allow camping.

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.

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Stealth Camping Gear

camping on a stone beach
Stealth camping on a privately owned stone beach.

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.

Attitude

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.

Resources

Like Ninjas? Then check out Ninja Paddling – The Path of the Ninja Paddler.

10 comments

  • Even with a stove I prefer to cook and eat somewhere else so I don’t have to do it at the campsite. I also pack up and leave in the morning and have breakfast elsewhere. I use a hammock which is great as long as there are trees. I have always found a hidden spot in the woods, there is no need for a level tent site.

    • I’ve done that as well. Last summer, I paddled in places where even stopping for lunch was on private property.

  • Great article and very valid points. Didn’t realise you have the same problems over there that we have in England. Even out of the way places are off limits!

  • On my trip along the Texas coast and bay system a couple of years ago I had a wide variety of camps. When I came into towns I was usually looking for something like a marina. When I saw someone I’d pull over and ask about it and mention what I was doing and I needed a place to camp til morning. This works out very well! Usually it’s about dinner time and they are cooking so they invite me to camp in their yard and stay to have dinner! Yumm! I’ve camped at a busy boat ramp, floating fishing camps, on docks , under bridges, but much prefer a spoil island with no buddy or anything around.

    In my Adirondack wilderness canoe adventures I camp with a hammock and it’s very easy to camp out of view of most everyone and anything. The rule there is to be 150′ from water or trail which is quite easy to do! but there’s some areas with strict camping rules but that’s to govern those setting up camp for days on end. I’m a “Thru Paddler” so I get in late and I’m out early and there’s very little time to be “noticed”.

    I stay off Private Lands in NY but there’s so much state land that it’s easy to find a camp.

    I camped once in a state run campground for a few hours, got in really late and was heading back out again early. It was raining and I had my hammock and tarp, all subdued colors. The trees were surrounding the campsite so I went into the back to set up. All my gear was under the tarp except for my pack canoe which hid behind the tarp. that morning the “keepers” came by and it was still raining as I was stowing my gear under the tarp. One of them said , oh it’s just a tarp and so they left. Ha! Minutes later after all the gear was packed away, the tarp came down in an instant and I was out of there in a blink of an eye. Yeah, it was still raining and did so all day. That night I found a leanto which worked out to be perfect.

    As a thru paddler one never knows where they’ll end up so it’s nice to be flexible with your options.

  • Great tips in the article as well as the comments. Thank you.

  • It’s too bad there just isn’t a trust from the owners of private property and they don’t know we won’t do anything wrong. And that, my friends, is a triple negative.

  • That’s kind of a ridiculous statement. You have no idea whether or not anyone else might do something wrong. Some property owners have lots of problems from unruly river users.

  • I just found your site and truly appreciate your contributions. I have stealth camped to be awoken by machine gun toting Mexican Marines, friendly Belizean fisherman, partying locals, and even huge toads and many other critters just passing by. Many times I have voted to get out the headlamps, eat a snack in the kayak, and push on to find more favorable shoreline. Restless nights do little to recharge you for your next days adventure.

  • […] is Guerrilla Camping? Sometimes referred to as stealth camping or ninja camping, guerrilla camping is simply camping where you aren’t supposed to, usually for […]

  • Something I don’t have to worry about here in Newfoundland thankfully! If you are forced to land near someone’s house expect to be invited in and fed and grogged to sleep! Most if not all cottages in out of the way places have the doors left open; a old code of conduct really incase someone need’s shelter. Most cabins have little books to write a note if you stayed.

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